BOZEMAN, Mont. — After he declared victory in a hard-fought race for Montana’s sole House seat, Republican Greg Gianforte turned somber.
The crowd was slow to turn with him.
“Last night, I learned a lesson,” said Gianforte, facing out at more than a hundred supporters in a Hilton ballroom. Many of them laughed, and a few started to applaud.
“No, please,” said Gianforte. “I need to share something from my heart and ask you to bear with me.”
“Last night I made a mistake,” said Gianforte.
“Not in our minds!” yelled a supporter.
“I took an action that I can’t take back, and I’m not proud of what I did,” said Gianforte.
“You’re forgiven!” yelled another supporter.
“Suck it, media!” yelled yet another.
One day after Gianforte was charged with assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs — and after his campaign blamed an “aggressive” and “liberal” Jacobs for the incident — Gianforte apologized to him by name. But he had not called Jacobs, who stayed away from the party. And he dropped the usual election night tradition of thanking his opponent; reportedly, Democrat Rob Quist was told Gianforte was busy when he called to concede the race.
Montana’s election, which was defined more by outside spending than by anything the candidates did, was just the latest pH test of an increasingly tribal, negative political climate.
Gianforte, who won vindication after losing a close 2016 gubernatorial race, entered the race with name identification but high unfavorable ratings.
Quist, a country/folk singer who’d never run for office, ran as a “Montanan for Congress” — a subtle dig at Gianforte, who’d moved to the state from New Jersey — and accused the Republican of favoring the GOP’s health-care bill so he could give himself a tax cut.
Republicans, wary about an enthusiasm gap and President Trump’s sinking poll numbers, intervened early to define Quist. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and heavily funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, spent $2.7 million on opposition research, voter contacts and ads, each complementing the other.
Ads hit Quist for late tax payments and liens; research dug up more evidence of fishy taxes and unpaid bills; volunteers at the doors reminded Republicans of the stakes if a safe seat went to a left-wing scofflaw.
“We knew that you were going to report anything that happened in Montana as a loss for Trump,” said former congressman Denny Rehberg at Gianforte’s victory party, referring to The Washington Post and the media at large. “You’ll say Montana is a red state, and because it was closer than anticipated, it’s a loss for Trump. No. Not at all.”
At Quist’s election party, in Missoula, the Democrat described the race as one battle in a war against plutocrats.
“I know that Montanans will hold Mr. Gianforte accountable,” said Quist. “These issues and this fight do not stop just because of the results of this election. We will continue to fight this rigged system, a system that allows corporations to affect elections.”
But the ad wars and the late-breaking attack on a reporter — the audio echoed around Montana on Thursday — revealed the Republicans’ command of an us-against-them narrative. Fully in control of Washington, the party has redefined power and the “establishment” so that liberals are always holding the whip.
Republicans in Montana did not believe that the assault charge helped Gianforte. The final weeks of the race saw a rat-a-tat series of opposition attacks, from the tax issue to Quist’s just-spitballing-here support for military spending cuts. The assault story complicated matters; unlike in Kansas and Georgia, the Republican nominee performed slightly worse on Election Day than in early votes.
What worked in Gianforte’s favor was the narrative, immediately adopted on conservative media, that the attack was in some way fair. Rationale crashed against rationale. Radio host Laura Ingraham spread a false rumor that Fox News reporters who had witnessed the assault were retracting their stories — while, on Twitter, describing Jacobs as a wimp who got “his lunch money stolen.”
Former congressman Jack Kingston, a CNN commentator, speculated that Jacobs played up the physical damage because he was an ambulance chaser; Rob O’Neill, the Navy SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden, crowed that “Montana justice” had been done.
The overwhelming analysis — which showed up in this reporter’s inbox Friday, and surely plenty more — was that Jacobs and his defenders were “snowflakes.” The flexible term, used recently to describe college students who have petitioned or protested their colleges demanding sensitivity.
It was an ill fit in a situation where a reporter asked about one of the race’s defining questions — where Gianforte stood on the House Republicans’ Affordable Health Care Act, after the Congressional Budget Office score — and got no answer. (Gianforte, unusually for a Republican candidate, did not mention health care or the repeal of Obamacare in his victory speech.)
And as recently as the 2016 campaign, conservative media pummeled Hillary Clinton for oversensitivity to reporters, epitomized at a 2015 parade where her staff walked with a rope line to keep camera crews at a distance.
That was then. In the final hours of the Montana campaign, the idea that Gianforte had done what the media deserved was irresistible — feeding into the idea that an arrogant, unfair elite was trying to bring him down. As in the presidential election, a wealthy candidate who’d been revealed to have a temper had an alibi.
“Snowflakes! Snowflakes!” bellowed Diane O’Neill, a Gianforte supporter, as she walked past the media rows at the election party. Asked to explain what she meant, she was concise: “I don’t think Greg needed to apologize for what those Soros-funded a–holes do.”
In another part of his victory speech, Gianforte himself furthered the idea that his victory — bolstered by super PACs and campaign visits from the vice president and the president’s son — was a body blow to the establishment.
“Montanans are sending a wake-up call to the Washington, D.C., establishment,” said Gianforte. “Montanans said, ‘Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi can’t call the shots here in Montana!’ Montanans said, ‘We’re gonna drain the swamp!’ ”
Sanders had visited the state to back Quist, and his Our Revolution group had flagged him early on as a candidate to support. But in Montana, as in Kansas, the Democrats’ populism and calls for voters to unite against the very rich did not overcome the conservative call to fight a shadowy elite.