Democrats are regrouping after losing the race for Montana’s open House of Representatives seat on Thursday, one day after the Republican candidate, Greg Gianforte, was charged with assaulting a reporter.
Gianforte’s win didn’t come as much of a surprise in a state that President Donald Trump won by 20 points in November – and many Democrats are already moving on.
“There are 300 districts in America that are better for Democrats than Montana at large,” Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist based in Florida, told Business Insider.
Most Democrats are relieved and encouraged that their candidate, the folk musician Rob Quist, lost by 6 points, even after national Republican groups poured twice as much money into the race as their Democratic counterparts.
“The fact that the GOP had to spend more than $6 million to defend a reliably Republican House seat” in a state that Trump won handily “is great news for Democrats,” Holly Shulman, a Democratic strategist, said in an email to Business Insider.
But if there is a lesson to be learned from Montana, Schale said, it’s that a better candidate, not more money, could have changed the outcome.
“You have to have an extraordinary candidate to win in places like this,” he said, adding that Quist was “arguably a third-tier candidate” – too “quirky” and, given his left-of-center views, “ideologically out of step” with Montana, where successful Democrats generally are center-right.
While some liberal activists were frustrated that national Democratic groups held back on funding Quist’s campaign, Schale said it was strategic.
“The road from zero percent to 46 or 47 percent is about as difficult as walking up your driveway,” Schale said. “But the road from 47 to 50 is like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.”
Rather than spending just enough money “to lose with dignity” in places like Montana, Democrats might want to focus their resources on races that are winnable, prioritizing next month’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District over more difficult races, like the one in Utah to replace Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who will step down in June. (The seat Gianforte will occupy was vacated by former Rep. Ryan Zinke when President Donald Trump tapped him to be his interior secretary.)
But the most important task, Schale said, is grooming candidates in strategic districts and organizing grassroots energy and fundraising to support them in the 2018 midterm elections.
In the meantime, some Democrats are not ready to give up on Montana.
Shulman said there would be pressure on House Speaker Paul Ryan to decline to seat Gianforte.
“What Ryan chooses to do in this case could have serious ramifications for the party’s future and is a real test of whether Republicans believe that this criminal behavior is acceptable,” she said.
Gianforte was cited for misdemeanor assault on Thursday after Ben Jacobs, a Guardian reporter, said he “body-slammed” him to the ground when he asked about the American Health Care Act. The incident led to widespread outrage and a last-minute ad-buy from progressive groups hoping to drive voters to the polls to elect Quist.
Those efforts fell short, but David Nir, the political director of the liberal website Daily Kos, said history was on the Democrats’ side.
“The last sitting member of Congress to be convicted of a violent crime was Republican Rep. Bill Janklow of South Dakota, who resigned shortly after a jury found him guilty,” Nir said in an email to Business Insider. “Democrats won the ensuing special election, in a state as red as Montana.”