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Why Democrats think they have a shot at Montana’s special election

May 24, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Montana's at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is up for grabs and the special election is garnering national attention. Democrats are eager to frame the fight as a referendum on President Trump. Judy Woodruff learns more about the race and its candidates from Anna Rau of Montana PBS.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And sticking with politics, Montana’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is up for grabs, and Democrats are eager to frame the fight as a referendum on President Trump.

To discuss why tomorrow’s special election is garnering national attention, we are joined by Anna Rau of Montana PBS.

Anna, thank you for joining us.

Montana is a very red state. Why is this even close?

ANNA RAU, Montana PBS: Well, that’s the question, actually, going forward. And I think people are watching it from the outside very closely, because it has tightened in the last month. You have seen it go from maybe 15 — 12 to 15 points, and then internal polling within the campaigns are showing closer maybe eight to 10 points, maybe six to eight points, so in some of the best polls for the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about the candidates in this race. Tell us just quickly the differences between the two of them.

ANNA RAU: OK.

Well, they’re both outsiders, political outsiders. But Rob Quist is a country bluegrass player. He played with the Mission Mountain Wood Band back in the ’70s. He’s very popular throughout the state for his music, but has absolutely no political experience.

And Greg Gianforte is a millionaire from Bozeman who made his money creating a great business in Montana that employed over 500 people. So he created all these high-wage jobs in the software business in Bozeman. So he has this kind of business acumen behind him, but, again, very little political experience. He did run for governor in November, but lost narrowly to Governor Bullock, who was the incumbent.

And I think there was a situation there where the whole ticket went red, except for the governor’s race. So some of those Republicans actually crossed when they got to Gianforte and Bullock, and voted for Bullock.

So, that’s been kind of a thing here too that Quist think he’s got a shot, and Democrats think they have a shot because of what happened in the governor’s race. So, it’s kind of those two candidates, very colorful candidate.s

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do polls and your interviews with voters tell you, though, is most on voters’ minds?

ANNA RAU: Well, early on in the campaign, it sounds like the two candidates were saying public lands and regulations out of Washington were the big issues, because out West we have the extractive industries, timber and mining.

And so when it came to Republican voters, they were very concerned about EPA regulation and government overreach. When it came to Democrat voters and some Republican voters, public lands and public access was a big issue. In Montana, we have over 25 million acres of public land.

Also, health care. At the very end here, health care has really picked up, especially with what’s going on in Washington, D.C. And Gianforte and Quist have come out very strongly on the health care bill. And there’s been some controversy about their positions on it.

But Quist has made that a cornerstone of his campaign because he had a health care issue in the ’90s that he says explains some of his problems financially and is in favor of maybe a single-payer program. And Gianforte, for his part, has said he wouldn’t support the current repeal and replace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quick final question. How much has Donald Trump, President Trump, come up in this campaign?

ANNA RAU: Well, Gianforte has said from the very beginning, make no mistake about this, this is a referendum on Donald Trump. I think that he was very popular in Montana. So, Quist tries to make it — his campaign tries to make it less about Trump and more about the characters of the candidates and their politics.

So they try to argue, it’s not a referendum. But you see thousands and thousands of dollars coming from small donors out of state to Quist in some support for him, maybe the last stand or the stand they’re trying to make in Montana to say, we aren’t happy with the Trump — with what the Trump administration is doing.

So, I think, to a certain extent, you have to argue that Trump, the Trump administration and what has been coming out has had an impact on the race and certainly on fund-raising for Quist. So, it will be interesting to see how much impact it has tomorrow night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anna Rau of Montana PBS, thank you very much.

ANNA RAU: Yes, thank you.

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