HELENA, Mont. – The Treasure State may lie some 2,000 miles away from the northern Atlanta suburbs, but the politics in this sparsely-populated slice of the Rockies may hold some major clues for how Georgians could vote in the June 20 runoff for health Secretary Tom Price’s House seat.
Much like the race in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, Thursday’s special election here to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Congress is a nationally-watched contest that’s seen as a bellwether for both President Donald Trump's popularity and the political muscle of the left’s nascent opposition movement in the lead-up to next year’s midterm elections.
Both contests feature well-known Republicans who are viewed as the slight favorites after previously runs for statewide office. Former technology executive Greg Gianforte ran for Montana governor last year, while Karen Handel also sought to be Georgia’s top executive in 2010 and U.S. senator in 2014.
Each race also includes a Democrat who's new to politics but has shown fundraising prowess -- particularly with out-of-state donors. Onetime congressional aide Jon Ossoff in Georgia and folk musician Rob Quist in Montana have both raised the specter of upset victories.
Neither race will shift the balance of power in the House of Representatives, but the winning parties will gain some momentum in the lead-up to 2018.
The similarities between the two races don't end with the candidates. Many of the outside players are the same: the Paul Ryan-aligned super PAC the Congressional Leadership Fund has funneled millions into both races, as has the National Republican Congressional Committee and the liberal fundraising website the Daily Kos. As in Georgia, their involvement has fueled a flurry of political advertising in Montana, some of it tied to the same issues. Health care has proven to be a major fault line in both races, as have the candidates’ personal finances.
Another unifying factor has been Ossoff and Quist’s winks toward the center – the former has focused on eliminating government waste and investing in the technology sector, while Quist frequently discusses gun rights and an energy plan that includes coal and oil. Both have largely kept Trump at arm's distance. But whereas Handel has maintained some distance from the president, Gianforte has fully embraced Trump and similarly sold himself as an outsider businessman.
Ossoff’s near-outright win during the first round of voting in Georgia-6 has clearly fueled more outside interest in the Montana race over the last five weeks, and Thursday’s results could shift the dynamics in the northern Atlanta suburbs during the final stretch of campaigning.
But there are major differences when it comes to the voters in the two districts and the prevailing political cultures.
Many of the issues at the forefront of debate here are much more localized than in Georgia: public lands and the management of natural resources are hot topics, as is whether to institute a sales tax in Montana. And the voters here are whiter, more populist and politically independent. Ballot-splitting is commonplace – while 56 percent of Montana voters selected Trump for president in November, they reelected their Democratic governor, Steve Bullock. Georgia, on the other hand, has not elected a Democratic official to statewide office in years.
Despite that, there has been much more hesitancy on the part of the national Democratic party to shovel as many resources into Montana as they have in Georgia’s 6th District. While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has devoted nearly $5 million to the Peach State race, it’s given only a fraction of that to aid Quist.
Follow along with our coverage of the Montana congressional race – with an emphasis on what it means for Georgia’s 6th District contest – on Political Insider and MyAJC.