Monday, May 08, 2017

Will The Passage Of TrumpCare Turn The Tide In Montana?


House Republicans had a tough choice Thursday when Ryan and Trump forced a vote on the phenomenally unpopular and destructive TrumpCare legislation. If members voted NO, they could be in trouble with the hardcore Republicans back home who have been brainwashed by Hate Talk Radio and Fox News and who insisted on a repeal no matter the consequences. That kind of trouble could lead to a primary from the right. If members voted YES-- as all but 20 Republicans did-- then the anger on the right might (temporarily) dissipate but that would leave them open to a devastating narrative for the 2018 midterms.

217 Republicans decided to cater to the base-- NRCC chairman Steve Stivers insists it's all that matters in a midterm-- but we should get a hint about how that vote will impact voting very soon. In just over 2 weeks, on May 25, Montana votes in a special election to replace Republican Ryan Zinke, who was drafted for Trump's cabinet with the OK of the House Republican leadership which felt certain it would have no trouble replacing with with another Republican. And maybe they will-- although no with "no trouble" since this race is already costing them a lot more than they expected it would.

It's an at-large district, so the entire state votes. Montana went for Trump last November 279,240 (55.6%) to 177,709 (35.4%), a horrible showing for Hillary. But that was mostly about Hillary. Bernie had won the June primary 65,156 (51.46) to 55,805 (44.16%). She was the wrong candidate for Montanans. In fact, the same day Trump beat her so badly, Democrat Steve Bullock was reelected governor of the state 255,933 (50.2%) to 236,115 (46.4%). You might be tempted to say Bullock only won because the Republicans picked such a terrible opponent against him, slick multimillionaire Greg Gianforte. And you might be right. But Gianforte is the congressional candidate now as well-- and the Democrats nominated the polar opposite of Hillary-- a salt-of-the-earth grassroots populist backed by Bernie, Rob Quist.

Quist has been very clear and very vocal that he opposed TrumpCare. Gianforte has been sneaky-- telling Montana voters he was undecided and needed to study the bill, but celebrating on a call with DC lobbyist/funders on the phone after it passed. A poll by Garin-Hart-Yang Research, taken a week before passage of TrumpCare, showed Gianforte leading Quist 49-43%. The poll, which also showed considerably more enthusiasm among Quist backers than among Gianforte backers.

9.3% of Montanans stand to lose their health insurance if TrumpCare becomes law-- 96,317 people, a very significantly higher percentage than Texas' 3.0%, Georgia's 3.4%, Kansas' 2.3%, Alabama's 2.6%, Idaho's 4.4%, Tennessee's 2.4%, Oklahoma's 2.5% or Mississippi's 2.2%. In fact, Montana will be among the 3 or 4 worst-hit of any of the states that voted for Trump. Both Trump and Pence will be traveling to Montana to campaign for Gianforte (while Bernie will be in-state campaigning for Quist).

Goal Thermometer Clare Foran, asserted for Atlantic readers over the weekend that Democrats haven't found a winning formula yet for competing in rural America in the Trump era and that the DCCC isn't doing enough to help flip the seat. "Montana," she pointed out, "is the kind of state where Democrats may need to make inroads if the party wants to expand its reach across the country, and convince voters who believe Democrats are out of touch that they are not a party of coastal elites." She reports that the DCCC has spent around $600,000 on the race, far less than the over $2.5 million Paul Ryan has directed into Montana.
The Montana contest creates a challenge for the Democratic Party. Trump’s election has convinced Democrats that the party must complete across the United States to win back the influence it has lost at the state and federal level in recent years. But as Democrats try to prove they can win even in places that aren’t liberal strongholds, the national party’s overarching anti-Trump message may prove alienating in states like Montana, where many voters approve of the president.

There are even indications that Quist-- whose campaign website claims he will act as “an independent voice for Montana” in Congress-- wants the national party to keep its distance. The Huffington Post reported last month that the candidate “declined an offer from the Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez to campaign for him in the state,” citing an anonymous source. The Quist campaign and the Montana Democratic Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the race and the scope of national Democrats’ involvement.

“Help from the national level is a double-edged sword,” Evan Barrett, a veteran Montana Democratic political operative, told me. “When the national party sends in resources, that can really help, but it’s not so good for the National Democratic Party to come to Montana in a highly visible way. That could put a partisan brand on the race, which could turn off some people the campaign needs to win over.”

...Some political activists who supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary argue that if the party were to embrace a more populist economic agenda, Democrats in working-class or rural parts of the country might not need to distance themselves from its stamp of approval. “If the Democratic Party brand is toxic, maybe they should rethink their brand,” said Corbin Trent, a co-founder of Brand New Congress, an organization formed to support 2018 primary opponents against both Democrats and Republicans. “The party needs to be more responsive to the needs of American people who feel that the party has turned its back on them.”

No matter how populist the agenda, however, there would likely still be elements of the party platform, like support for gun control, that could become a liability in conservative parts of the country. That includes Montana: In one ad, Republican Gianforte says: “some folks just don’t get it, our Second Amendment rights are not up for negotiation,” after a narrator ominously accuses Quist of wanting to “establish a national gun registry” that would put residents’ personal information “in a big government computer.” In an ad of his own, Quist, wearing the cowboy hat that’s become his signature, wields a rifle and vows to “protect your right to bear arms.”

But even as he tries to showcase his political independence from Washington, Quist doesn’t seem to want every party leader to stay away. Sanders, who remains an Independent but is officially part of Senate Democratic leadership, endorsed Quist last month, and is expected to campaign alongside him ahead of the election.

As Democrats work to rebuild in the Trump era, some party leaders acknowledge that “there’s no question that the Democratic Party needs to strengthen its brand,” as Deputy DNC Chair Keith Ellison put it in a recent interview. He argued that the party can do that by “strengthening our ties, and connection and trust with the grassroots.”

...Some progressive critics, meanwhile, think the party should devote more attention to the Montana race to prove it cares about winning in non-urban and not-as-affluent parts of the country, especially after national Democrats largely stayed on the sidelines of a Kansas special election last month in a deep-red congressional district. The Democratic candidate ultimately lost that race, though it proved far more competitive than most observers had predicted.

“I think the additional influx of resources i n Montana is a good move,” said Winnie Wong, the co-founder of the grassroots progressive group People for Bernie, which formed during the presidential primary to support Sanders’s White House bid. “It means they are seeing the error of their ways. That said, I do think they should have mobilized for Quist much earlier on.”

Of course, Democrats in Washington don’t necessarily see it that way. Michigan Representative Dan Kildee, a member of the DCCC leadership team, defended the group’s investment in the race, arguing in an interview that Montana is “clearly a priority.” “The DCCC is investing, and I think investing in the right way,” Kildee said, “by empowering people who know Montana politics to make decisions about the priorities of the use of resources, which is really a smart way to go.”

...If the party aims to make investments in elections based on what local campaigns and activists want-- and how competitive they believe a race to be-- it makes sense that national Democrats would engage differently in different races. The question now is whether they can translate their engagement into concrete gains as the party tries to win seats in state legislatures, in Congress, and eventually the White House. And whether, and to what extent, the party itself will need an overhaul in order to do that.

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