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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Looking Ahead To Montana's 2018 House Race

Graphic: Montana Public Radio News, Politics
Montana Politics & Legislature

MTPR News Director Eric Whitney: On Monday we took a look at the race for Montana's senate seat that's up in 2018. On Tuesday David Parker is back to talk about the 2018 House race. Parker is a political science professor at Montana State University. David Parker, thanks for joining us on Montana Public Radio.

MSU Political Science Professor David Parker: Good to be here, as always.

EW: Last week a man named Grant Kier of Missoula announced that he's seeking the Democratic nomination, making him I believe the second to do so after Billings attorney John Heenan. Do you know much about either of those guys?

DP: I do not. I know a little bit more about John Heenan if only because he has a website and he has a little bit of presence and some folks are starting to hold fundraisers for him around Bozeman. Heenan is a trial attorney out of Billings and he actually wasn't born in Montana. Of course neither was Conrad Burns and he seemed to do okay. But those two are not what I would say immediately jump to mind when I think of a “quality challenger” and I'd like to use that term very specifically. When political scientists say “quality challenger” they mean has this candidate actually run successfully for office before. That’s a good predictor as to whether or not the candidate has a good shot of actually winning an election and neither of those candidates have successfully run for office so I would not put them in the “quality challenger” camp.

EW: The Democrat who lost to Greg Gianforte in the special election, Rob Quist, is also in that camp. He's never successfully run for office before, but he did better than previous Democratic candidates in the last couple of Montana house races. Do you expect Rob Quist to run again?

DP: Rob Quist would be interesting. I mean he's a little older, he's got some name recognition, and he did do better. I have not heard much about Quist running. The problem with Quist is even though he did well in the special election, even though he raised gads of money, he had some fundamental problems as a candidate which were very successfully exploited by outside groups. You know, that said, Gianforte, it's possible he could be vulnerable. I mean he only got 50 percent of the vote in a state that went almost 56 percent for Donald Trump and certainly the events concerning the reporter and the assault are certainly problematic and could be exploited successfully by a quality challenger.

EW: Are there any names out there of someone who has won an election before that you think might pop up as potential candidates to go against Gianforte?

DP: There has been some talk of a Bozeman legislator, Tom Woods, potentially running. He has run for office before and he has won. The challenge there is a fundraising base to basically go up against Gianforte and the resources he has personally available and which he has raised as well. But right now it doesn't seem to be like there's any serious challenge. Heenan certainly could probably cobble together resources and that's an important part of the equation, but I'm not sure trial attorney is something that a lot of Montanans can identify with. Certainly coming from Billings, that's an advantage, that's where the biggest share of votes are. But so far it seems to be that a lot of the Democrats are not too sure of going after Gianforte and if you actually look, Politico’s report puts that seat, it is competitive, but it's, of the competitive seats, it's in the least likely to be competitive category, which means it's likely Republican. For that seat to be vulnerable under that scenario he'd have to have a pretty major swing happening in the midterm cycle here for Gianforte's seat to come at risk. And that situation, somebody like Heenan who does have money who can raise his name ID pretty quickly, he could basically get lucky and potentially take out Greg Gianforte, but that would largely depend upon national forces.

EW: Do you think it's possible that Congressman Gianforte would see a primary challenger?

DP: Unclear. He has not gotten a primary challenger to date and I think the scariest thing there for a lot of candidates again is the financial resources. I have not heard of any primary challenger coming out there. If you look at Greg Gianforte's performance it was not terribly impressive relative to Donald Trump, but, in rural counties, he greatly improved his vote performance and percentages over his gubernatorial race. So the key here is can he grow in the larger populated areas. I have not heard of any primary challenge. That could be a possibility if there is a belief that he is indeed vulnerable because of the incident back in the spring, the day before the election.

EW: Montana's Republican party and I guess the Republican party nationwide is fractious or not unified. Do you have a sense for whether the party in Montana feels like Congressman Gianforte was damaged enough by that incident with the reporter, the assault conviction, that that damages him enough that they might need to find a different candidate?

DP: Most of the primary challenges nationally are coming from conservative candidates and it would seem that Greg Gianforte has pretty solid conservative bona fides. It seems to be that he is voting fairly conservatively in the House of Representatives. I would find it difficult to think that somebody from the responsible Republican camp in the legislature would run against Greg Gianforte. For the most part people realize your best shot is with an incumbent, potentially even if that incumbent is damaged.

EW: I guess it's too early to speculate on how Republican voters might be feeling about Donald Trump and whether they want to elect a congressman from Montana who's going to help Donald Trump or they'll have soured on President Trump by then.

DP: There is no doubt that Donald Trump is probably more popular here in Montana than he is nationally. But if you look in the midterm elections on average from 1946 through 2014, the president's party loses 26 seats in the House. That's on average. And four seats in the Senate. The big question here is this going to be a swing like 1982 under Ronald Reagan where there was a recession and Reagan was reasonably popular but losing some of that popularity. Republicans lost the average of 26 seats, but they actually gained one in the Senate. Or is this going to be like 2010 where we're still coming out of the recession, we're still in the middle of it, we still haven't seen a lot of improvement, and Obama's party, the Democrats lose 63 seats in the House, six seats in the Senate. And I think we have an historically unpopular president, there's no doubt that that's going to be a drag on the Republican ticket. What we don't have at the moment, is we don't have a terribly bad economy nationally, although the numbers are not looking quite as rosy here in Montana, depending on your perspective. If the economy turns South, wow, we could see some big changes in terms of the majority in the House and potentially in the Senate.

EW: Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks made something of an impression in the special election race. Do you think that he or another Libertarian candidate will have more influence in 2018 than we've seen in past House elections?

DP: Well, you know, potentially, but that Libertarian candidate gets anywhere from four to six points. There's been a lot of speculation and a lot of folks talked about that. It was Dan Cox, a Libertarian, and his presence on the ballot as a Libertarian candidate in 2012 is what swung the race for Jon Tester. And again my evidence that I've shown in the book is it wasn't enough, you know. I mean that wasn't the factor, there are other factors you could point to. Certainly it will take away votes probably more likely from the Republican candidate. But generally speaking, that's just a protest vote. And there are some solid Libertarians obviously who support Libertarians all the time. You know, maybe that's three percent of the vote or four percent of the vote, but in a really tight race, you know, who knows. It could make a difference if there's enough people who are frustrated with Greg Gianforte and don't like him and don't respect him, that would give them an easy out. And clearly the Democrats are motivated and will be motivated in the midterm cycle and should come out in large numbers. So it depends.

EW: David Parker, thanks for joining us at Montana Public Radio.

DP: Thanks for having me.

EW: David Parker is a professor of political science at Montana State University and the author of the book, "Battle For The Big Sky."

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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