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Everything you need to know about Montana's special election

Montana special election
Montana special election 04:22

So, why should I care about the Montana special election?

Fresh off a near-win in Georgia, Democrats are hoping to turn their voters' enthusiasm into electoral victories. They need to win 24 seats to win back the House in 2018, and thanks to the redistricting that's happened since the big Republican wins in 2010, they'll need to compete in traditionally red districts like this one, which represents all of Montana.

The seat is open because President Trump appointed its previous representative, Ryan Zinke, to the position of Interior secretary. That means the GOP is fighting on its home turf in an effort to stave off an upset. While national Democrats have largely kept their wallets on the sidelines, Republicans are spending big to keep the seat, and have already dished out more than $2.2 million on ads. Amid criticism that they weren't stepping up, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced a $400,000 investment in the race on Wednesday. 

Plus, this race is one to watch for sheer entertainment value alone. Both candidates have significant, and rather unusual, strengths and weaknesses. Also, both candidates have released ads in which they shoot screens with guns.

Intriguing...who's the Democrat in this election?

His name is Rob Quist, a famous Montana bluegrass musician who ends every rally he holds with a campaign song he wrote himself. A political newcomer, he supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries, and is running as a populist who likes both guns and single-payer healthcare. "Everybody should have a system like Medicare, where you walk in, show your card and you're covered, no questions asked," he told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in January.

For his part, Sanders is returning the favor and campaigning for Quist. "My impression is [Quist]'s a very strong candidate who stands up for working people, understands that we need a government that represents all of us," Sanders told the Huffington Post last month.

Republicans have gone after Quist for his criticism of assault rifle ownership in an attempt to paint him as a liberal gun-grabber. This line of attack prompted Quist to release an ad in which he shoots a television set with a rifle that "has protected my family's ranch for generations." The TV is showing a Republican ad where Quist is depicted as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in a cowboy hat.

Quist was also the subject of some mockery when the Washington Free Beacon revealed that he has been, along with his musician daughter, a sometime performer at a nudist resort in Montana. However, both Quists remained fully clothed during their sets.

Ok. What about the Republican?

Greg Gianaforte is a software entrepreneur who tried and failed to unseat Montana's incumbent governor last November even as Mr. Trump won the state by 20 points. In that race, Gianforte had tried to distance himself from Mr. Trump, a mistake he's taken pains to avoid making again. He even had Donald Trump Jr. headline a recent rally for him, which drew thousands.

Although he's lived in Montana for 24 years, Gianforte originally hails from New Jersey, which the native-born Quist has tried to turn into an issue. Quist, rarely seen without his signature Stetson, has taken to referring to Gianforte as a "New Jersey millionaire" on the trail.

Democrats have used repeatedly Gianforte's wealth against him. In this race, they've highlighted his six-figure investment in Russian index funds that include companies sanctioned by the U.S. government. During the gubernatorial campaign, incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock accused Gianforte of trying to buy the election by spending $5 million of his own money on it. 

Gianforte has made gun rights central to his pitch, accusing his opponent of wanting a national gun registry that would be kept on a "big government computer." In one ad, Ginaforte shoots said computer with a rifle.

The Republican has also tried to make hay of the fact that Quist, despite his pro-gun message, hasn't had a valid hunting license in 15 years. Gianforte has also repeatedly try to portray Quist as a puppet of Pelosi who wants to "run up mountains of debt and leave us with the bill."

Who's going to win?

Montana usually goes red in presidential years. However, Montana – although largely rural and conservative on issues like gun rights – also has a habit of electing Democrats to statewide office. They've had a Democratic governor for the last 12 years, for example, and a Democratic U.S. senator for 10 years in Sen. Jon Tester.

The at-large congressional seat, on the other hand, has been in Republican hands since 1997. And given the dearth of polling in this election, it's very hard to say which candidate has the upper hand. But what we do know is that Gianforte has significant advantages, and much more money to spend. In order for Quist to win, he's going to need the support of some Republicans and independents in the state, while Gianforte may be able to rely on Trump-supporting Republicans turning out en masse.

But Quist is a compelling character running on a message of authenticity against a candidate who's already lost statewide once. And given how few people tend to turn out for special elections, it's impossible to know who will wind up winning this one, especially if national Democrats start throwing more money at the race.

"[Quist]seems in touch with the tenor of the state these days," Democratic strategist Geoff Garin told NPR last month. "And we're in a moment, not just in Montana but America, where it is a good thing not to be a career politician."

The election will take place on May 25th. 

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