Why no one should be surprised by Greg Gianforte's win in Montana
All politics is national, after all
All politics is local, former Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill told us. It's one of those longstanding truisms that is only sometimes true, and is rarely so today. Because these days, as the special election for a congressional seat in Montana demonstrates, all politics is actually national.
On Thursday, Republican Greg Gianforte won that special election by six points over Democrat Rob Quist. Democrats will claim the relatively close result as a moral victory, since Donald Trump won the state by 20 points and in 2016 the incumbent Ryan Zinke, who vacated the seat to become secretary of the interior, won by 16. And there's certainly a case to be made for that interpretation. If Democrats do 10 points better in every congressional district in next year's elections than they did in last year's, they'll sweep into control of Congress.
Republicans will counter that they won the Montana race, and that's all that matters.
While we shouldn't over-interpret the results of one special election, what was most remarkable about this one, and the one going on in Georgia, is how national they became. They were the subject of innumerable stories in national papers and on cable news; national political figures flew in to campaign; volunteers came from all over the country to help. And money poured in, too: The candidates and outside groups spent at least $17 million in Montana, about twice what Zinke and his opponent spent last year. That's nothing compared to what's happening in Georgia, currently in the runoff phase of its special election. That race has become the most expensive House campaign in history, with over $30 million spent already, a total that could surpass $40 million by the runoff on June 20.
All that for a couple of measly House seats, in a chamber of 435. Every seat matters, of course, and a big part of why these elections got so much attention is that they're the only ones happening. But in both cases, everyone involved is eager to make them as national as possible.
Just consider the shocking story that took over the Montana race, when on the day before the election, Gianforte allegedly attacked Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, slamming him to the floor and punching him, according to Jacobs' audio recording of the incident and witnesses who saw it happen.
Gianforte is something of a small-time Trump, a rich jerk without political experience who made the ridiculous claim that he'd clean up Washington, which apparently people are still dumb enough to believe. It seems that the intense spotlight was a bit too much for him — his attack came because Jacobs asked him to comment on the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Republican health-care bill, not usually a topic to send someone into a violent rage.
Gianforte shares something else with Trump: Many of his supporters seemed thrilled by his display of thuggishness, particularly since it was directed toward a reporter. They were egged on by the national conservative media, people like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, who took to their megaphones to mock the reporter and tell everyone that he had it coming. That too has nothing to do with Montana; the president has made it the quasi-official position of the Republican Party that journalists are the enemy and should be treated with contempt and hatred, and even maybe violence.
Gianforte may or may not turn out to be the most obnoxious member of Congress (he'll have some stiff competition), but even Montana Republicans who don't approve of his pugilistic impulses will get what they want from him. As much as we blather on about wanting representatives who are close to the people, possessed of nothing but common sense and "[insert our state here] values," there's a strong case to be made that House elections really should be national. Representatives don't bring home the bacon the way they used to; after Republicans took back the House in 2010, they banned earmarks, those targeted bits of spending that members used to use to deliver a new road downtown, or a new wing for the local hospital. Many people now see that as a mistake; by eliminating earmarks, they made the legislative process less transactional, heightening the ideological polarization that can lead to gridlock.
But for now, that's how it remains, which means that your member of Congress exists to do little more than cast a vote for their party's position on every issue. For a newly elected member to move up the ranks and become a truly influential player, it can take a decade or more; many of them never do. Which means that if you're confronted with a choice, it may be more rational to ask, "Is this candidate going to support Trump and the GOP agenda?" and not "Is this candidate the kind of guy who goes around assaulting people?" — let alone "Is this candidate wise and just and true?" In that sense, Gianforte's victory in a reliably Republican state should surprise no one.
The most important question in 2018 will be whether Democrats take the House and are able to stymie the Republican agenda, or whether Republicans hold on and are able to pass more conservative legislation. That's what your vote will really be about. When you meet a candidate down at the moose lodge and he tells you what a good old local boy he is, you might want to keep that in mind.