Montana At-Large: Does Open Seat Help or Hurt Democrats’ Pickup Opportunity?

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 11, 2019 · 2:52 PM EDT

Parties crave open seats, considering the vast majority of incumbents win re-election. But in the case of Montana’s at-large district, Democrats may have lost their preferred opponent when Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte filed to run for governor.

While it might have been daunting for Democrats to face Gianforte’s personal wealth in a presidential year in a state President Donald Trump carried by 20 points, the congressman has actually underperformed the partisan lean of the state in past elections. It might have something to do with him assaulting a reporter in 2017.

According to the Inside Elections Baseline, Republicans have a 51.4 percent to 44.9 percent advantage statewide. Gianforte slightly underperformed a generic GOP candidate in the state when he won his first full term last November, with a -0.5 Vote-Above-Replacement, or VAR, score. His Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Kathleen Williams, over-performed slightly (1.3 VAR), making the final margin closer than usual. (Gianforte won by 5 points.)

Gianforte’s VAR after the 2017 special election was -3.1 and -6.3 in his unsuccessful run for governor in 2016. So House Republicans probably aren’t mourning his decision to run for governor again. They have an opportunity to nominate someone who isn’t as polarizing.

Williams is running again in 2020 for the Democrats, but looks likely to face state Rep. Tom Winter in the primary.

Since it’s unclear who the nominees will be, with the Democratic primary and the GOP race just getting started, it’s difficult to handicap the race. But Montana still leans Republican under most circumstances, and it’s a place where Trump shouldn’t be toxic.

Democrats could point to Sen. Jon Tester’s three statewide victories or Gov. Steve Bullock’s two wins. But they are the only two Democrats to win statewide since 2012, and they’ve combined to top 50 percent just twice in five chances. So their victories shouldn’t be considered the norm and it proves there is very little margin for error for Democrats, even with the right candidate.

For now, we’re maintaining our Solid Republican rating of the race for Montana’s at-large district.