Key Counties to Watch in Montana’s Special Congressional Election

by Robert Yoon May 25, 2017 · 9:30 AM EDT

BOZEMAN, MONTANA -- Wednesday’s unusual confrontation between Republican Greg Gianforte and a political reporter have given a boost to Democratic hopes of picking off the vacant Montana at-large House seat previously held by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Although Democratic nominee Rob Quist has kept the race surprisingly close, Gianforte still entered the final stretch of the campaign with a slight advantage. 

Nonetheless, if the state’s electoral history is any indication, Montana Democrats typically have little room for error when it comes to winning competitive statewide elections, especially for federal offices. Montanans have not sent a Democrat to the House in more than 20 years. Republicans have carried Montana in 12 of the last 13 presidential races. President Donald Trump won the state decisively in 2016. He beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 20 percentage points and carried 50 of the state’s 56 counties. 

However, Democrats have an opening in 12 Trump counties that previously went for a statewide Democratic candidate in a competitive contest at some point over the past decade. (In addition, Democratic incumbents Max Baucus and Brian Schweitzer won their 2008 Senate and gubernatorial re-election bids in 2008 by huge margins in non-competitive races.)

These counties are (in descending order of population): Yellowstone, Cascade, Lewis & Clark, Lake, Hill, Park, Roosevelt, Rosebud, Blaine, Chouteau, Mineral, and Sheridan.

Like in the stock market, previous electoral performances are not necessarily predictive of future results, but an Inside Elections review of county-level results from competitive Montana races from the past decade does provide some indications of how well Quist must fare in regions throughout the state in order to claim victory in Montana’s first special congressional election in almost 50 years.

Quist’s Quest: Score in the mid- to high 40s in Yellowstone, though not necessarily carry the county outright

Montana’s biggest electoral prize is Yellowstone County, home of Billings, the state’s most populous city. Republicans have won the county in the last several presidential elections. Trump carried Yellowstone last year with 60 percent of the vote. Although Democrats rarely win Yellowstone in competitive contests (Sen. Jon Tester in 2012 was the recent exception), they don’t need to win Yellowstone to win a statewide race, as long as they remain competitive. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock won both his 2012 and 2016 elections but narrowly lost the county with 48 percent of the vote. Tester also lost Yellowstone in his 2006 Senate victory but still received 48 percent of the vote statewide. By comparison, President Obama received only 38 percent in the county in 2012 and Clinton only 32 percent, and both went on to lose statewide. Obama also lost the state in 2008, but had a better-than-expected statewide showing, thanks in part to the 45 percent he received in Yellowstone. 

Quist’s Quest: Win Cascade County with 50-55% of the vote and Lewis & Clark County with around 55% of the vote or more. If he can’t, it’s a sign he’ll have a hard time winning statewide.

President Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012 both carried Cascade and Lewis & Clark Counties, which are the state’s fifth and sixth largest population centers and are anchored by Great Falls and the state capital of Helena, respectively. However, they are far from Republican locks. Democratic incumbents Bullock and Tester both won these counties twice in their election and re-election bids. Obama also won both counties in 2008, although he lost statewide despite a surprisingly strong showing. Former GOP congressman-turned-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke won both counties in his 2014 and 2016 races but not by huge margins. 

Quist’s Quest: Win these counties or post a strong showing in the high 40% range.

Although President Trump carried Lake and Park with 57 percent and 54 percenet, respectively, Democrats have shown they can be competitive in both counties. Lake is located in northwestern Montana; Park is on the southern border with Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.

Democrats have never surpassed the 50 percent mark in a competitive race in Lake in at least the last decade, but Gov. Bullock and Sen. Tester won the county a combined four times with just 48-49 percent of the vote. President Obama won Lake in 2008 with 49 percent. In comparison, Hillary Clinton received just 36 percent last year. 

In Park, Bullock lost the county in 2012 with 48 percent but won four years later with 53 percent. Tester received between 48 percent and 51 percent of the vote in his two races, carrying the county both times.

The same principle applies to Rosebud, a smaller-to-midsize county located in southeastern Montana. Trump won the county with 66 percent of the vote, but some Democrats, including President Obama in 2008, have managed to win here with between 48 percent and 55 percent of the vote. 

Quist’s Quest: Win Hill, Roosevelt, and Blaine Counties decisively.  

One clear sign of the hopeless battle Hillary Clinton faced in Montana in 2016 was her inability to hold Hill, Roosevelt, and Blaine Counties. She got a shellacking in Hill, located in north-central Montana on the Canadian border. She received only 37 percent of the vote in one of the small handful of counties that Obama carried twice. In comparison, Gov. Bullock and Sen. Tester never dipped below the 57 percent mark in Hill County in their combined four successful statewide elections. Former GOP Rep. Zinke carried Hill in 2014 and 2016 but with only 49.7 percent and 51.6 percent, respectively. 

Clinton fared better in Roosevelt, located in the northeast corner bordering North Dakota, and Blaine, located on Canadian border, with vote percentages in the mid-40s. However, other Democrats have won here with huge margins of victory. President Obama carried Roosevelt and Blaine in 2008 and 2012 with vote percentages in the high 50s or low 60s. Bullock and Tester dipped below the 55 percent mark only once in their combined four successful races. Roosevelt and Blaine were two of just seven Montana counties that former GOP Rep. Zinke never won in his two successful races.

A poor Quist showing in these three midsized counties would likely indicate a bad night overall.

Quist’s Quest: Post huge margins in these Democratic strongholds

In order to win the seat, Quist must run up the score in these Democratic counties, especially in Missoula, the state’s second most populous region. Winning these counties is not enough for Democrats; Hillary Clinton received 53 percent in Missoula last year but still went on to lose the state by 20 points. Successful Democrats posted Missoula percentages in the mid-60s. 

The margins will likely be smaller in Gallatin County, the third largest county and home to Bozeman, where Gianforte’s campaign is headquartered. But losing Gallatin would make a Democratic upset unlikely.

Quist’s Quest: Stem the bleeding in Republican strongholds

Quist has little hope of winning many of the state’s small rural counties or other GOP strongholds, like the relatively populous Flathead, Ravalli, and Lincoln Counties. President Trump carried 34 of 35 Montana counties with populations of less than 10,000. Although the Democratic definition of “doing well” in these counties varies widely, a victorious candidate would likely outperform Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing by roughly 10 to 20 percentage points.

*The original version of the story mis-stated the locale of the reporter who was assaulted.