Sometime after 10 p.m. Thursday in Washington, everyone in politics will feign being an expert on Montana or, as they will call it with an insider’s flourish, Big Sky Country. The returns from the first statewide race of the Trump era will inevitably trigger the type of frenzied over-analysis reserved for special elections at moments of political turmoil.
If the Republicans hang on to the House seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the sighs of relief from imperiled GOP incumbents may set off every wind chime in the D.C. area. Greg Gianforte brings to the race two decided advantages — he is rich (he sold his software company for $1.5 billion in 2011) and he is a Republican.
Democrat Rob Quist is the kind of candidate that a cliche-ridden Hollywood screenwriter might have invented — a 69-year-old banjo-playing, Bernie Sanders-supporting folk singer who is always photographed in a white cowboy hat.
But whatever the results from Montana, it is easy to envision the partisan talking points.
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A Gianforte victory would prompt Republicans to chortle that for all the media hype, for all the anti-Trump online fundraising, the Democrats still haven’t won anywhere. A Quist upset, in contrast, would set off Democratic celebrations that the combination of rural populism and toxic Trump represents a formula for a national comeback.
The truth is — and I would wager that no one on television Thursday night will dare say this — that we don’t know if the 2017 special elections are predictors of larger political trends.
Yes, actual congressional seats are at stake rather than just bragging rights over the latest polling or fundraising numbers. But each race, especially on the Democratic side, brings with it a level of national enthusiasm that is impossible for any party to match in 2018.
Only Sean Hannity might dispute the notion that — certainly, right now — congressional Republicans have a Trump problem. But they also have a Paul Ryan problem. In their zeal to repeal Obamacare, House Republicans lost any sense of legislative strategy.
Mitch McConnell, whose legislative talents should never be underestimated, may win Senate passage of a health care bill this summer. But McConnell’s goal is probably to free Senate Republicans from being blamed for inaction rather than concocting a piece of legislation that would survive scrutiny by the right-wing House Freedom Caucus.
The problem facing both parties in Congress right now is that they know what they’re against — Obamacare for the Republicans and Trump for the Democrats. But Republicans and Democrats alike are having a hard time figuring out exactly what they’re for.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.