Yellowstone County Democrats seemed disappointed but resigned Thursday night as chances for an upset win by Rob Quist over Greg Gianforte slowly faded.
Democrats gathered for drinks and pizza at the Knights of Columbus on Grand Avenue in Billings to watch results come in for the U.S. House special election. Early results showed Quist, a Democrat, behind by only a couple of percentage points, which fueled hopes that late results might be influenced by assault charges filed against Republican Gianforte following an altercation with a reporter on Wednesday.
But those hopes gradually faded as Gianforte extended his lead to six, then seven points, and news outlets began calling the U.S. House race for the Republican. The crowd began thinning by 10 p.m., and by midnight, results at the Montana secretary of state’s website showed Gianforte leading by 27,000 votes, 51 to 43 percent.
Particularly disappointing to Democrats here were results in Yellowstone County, where Gianforte was leading Quist by more than 10,000 votes, 56 percent to 37 percent. Libertarian Mark Wicks had 6 percent of the vote.
Democrats can’t lose Yellowstone County by 10,000 votes and expect to win a statewide race, said Rep. Kelly McCarthy said. McCarthy had been one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination.
Several Democrats said that if assault charges had been filed against Gianforte two weeks earlier, that might have changed the result. But so many Montanans vote by mail or by absentee ballot that hopes for a late shift in the vote results rested on heavy turnout on Election Day. Instead, several local Democrats said they saw relatively few voters casting ballots at MetraPark on Thursday.
Ironically, prominent Republicans had opposed attempts to turn Thursday’s special election into an all-mail election, a move that might have sealed Gianforte’s win well before Election Day.
But it wasn’t clear that the assault charges would have changed many votes in any case, even though three daily Montana newspapers rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte after the news broke.
A number of voters interviewed at polling places or submitting comments to conservative news sites expressed continued support for Gianforte, with some suggesting that he was right to assault the reporter. Others said that they wished they lived in Montana just so they could vote for Gianforte because of the assault.
In his victory speech in Bozeman Thursday night, Gianforte apologized for his actions against the reporter.
“I made a mistake, and I took an action that I can’t take back, and I’m not proud of what happened,” Gianforte said.
“I should not have treated the reporter that way,” Gianforte added. “I am sorry, Mr. Ben Jacobs.”
It was Gianforte’s first comment about the altercation other than a statement from his campaign on Wednesday night that blamed Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian, for the incident. There also was no other evidence before Thursday night’s apology that Gianforte’s attitude toward the media had changed in any way. A fundraising email from Gianforte’s campaign on Wednesday said that a victory for Quist would be a victory for national Democrats and for the “fake news media.”
In his victory speech, Gianforte promised to stay out of the limelight, and he said, “Montana sent a strong message tonight that you want a congressman who will work with President Trump to make America and Montana great again.”
In his concession speech in Missoula, Quist said more than 1,100 people were knocking on doors to get out the vote on Election Day. He said that despite his loss, a grassroots movement will continue in Montana and that Montanans will hold Gianforte accountable.
“Don’t be discouraged; be determined,” he said.
Local Democrats said they were disappointed that the election results appeared to show continued support in Montana for President Trump, who won the state by 20 percentage points in November. Trump’s administration has been rocked by allegations that Russia intervened to get him elected and by his failure to pass significant legislation or block immigration from certain countries.
At the KC Hall, Valerie McMurtry said she was especially concerned about Trump’s lack of respect for the media and the First Amendment. Karen Moses said she found it difficult to understand how Trump could continue to hold such strong support despite his many missteps.
Outside of Yellowstone, Flathead and Cascade counties, Quist ran well in urban counties and in counties with Indian reservations. Quist was leading late Thursday in Missoula County, 61 to 33 percent; Gianforte’s home county, Gallatin, 54 to 41 percent; Lewis and Clark County, 51 to 42 percent; and Silver Bow County, 63 to 29 percent.
Gianforte won just about everywhere else, running up huge margins in many rural counties, such as Carter County, 84 percent; Fallon County, 81 percent; Petroleum County, 79 percent; and Garfield County, 90 percent.
Wicks’ strongest showing was in Liberty County, where he won 16 percent of the vote. He had 6 percent of the vote statewide.
National analysts noted that Quist ran a stronger race in Montana than Hillary Clinton did against Trump and than Denise Juneau did against Ryan Zinke, who left the House seat to become secretary of the Interior. Juneau lost that race by 15 percentage points.
Local Democrats appeared to take little consolation in those results, but they seemed to be far from despair. Several noted that Democrats appear to be closing ground nationwide, although that has yet to produce tangible results.
UPDATE: With all precincts reporting, the Montana secretary of state website this morning shows Gianforte with a final margin of about 23,000 votes, or 50 to 44 percent. Wicks finished with 6 percent. Statewide voter turnout was 54 percent.