HELENA – Voters will head to the polls Thursday to decide who will fill Montana’s only U.S. House seat amid uncertainty in Washington over President Donald Trump’s agenda and his handling of the country’s affairs.
They are choosing between a wealthy GOP businessman who has strongly aligned himself with the president and the NRA, and a touring musician who has focused on health care and the travails of ordinary people as he tries to become the state’s first Democratic congressman in two decades.
Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist both are seeking their first public office. The wild card in the contest is a Libertarian longshot who could siphon votes from the better-financed competitors.
The state has been without a voice in the U.S. House since Ryan Zinke resigned to join Trump’s Cabinet as secretary of the Interior Department. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said he chose the earliest possible date to hold an election – May 25 – to waste no time in regaining that voice.
The special election has been rife with drama, and the flow of big money portends for a battle at the ballot box. Republican groups poured money into the state to help Gianforte retain the seat for his party as Quist tried to rally progressives trying to push back against last fall’s GOP tide in Montana and nationwide.
Both candidates brought in big names to woo voters. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders rallied thousands on Quist’s behalf during a four-city tour, while Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. made visits to help burnish Gianforte’s credentials among the president’s devotees.
In a last-minute twist Wednesday, the state’s commissioner of political practices said he fielded dozens of calls from residents complaining about robocalls featuring the voices of the president and vice president.
The pre-recorded calls are illegal in Montana, though it isn’t clear if local authorities have jurisdiction over a federal election. Helena police, in the state’s capital, said they were investigating some of the complaints.
In the last weeks of the 85-day campaign, televisions have exploded with commercials, most of them negative. Campaign spending quickly reached record levels, with Quist and Gianforte raising more than $10 million combined and outside groups dumping more than $7 million into the race, most of it from groups aligned with conservatives.
Colleen Peterson, who described herself as a staunch independent, decried all of the outside money and the national attention the race has attracted.
“It’s none of their business. It’s our election,” Peterson said, as she loaded groceries into her car.
For some, the question leading up to Election Day was not about choosing among the candidates – it was about whether to vote at all. As of Wednesday, more than a third of the state’s 700,000 registered voters had cast absentee ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office.
The abbreviated campaign period was a blessing to voters like Sarah Power, who said she grew weary of the incessant negativity coming from her television.
“I’m glad it was only for 85 days, because it won’t go on forever,” Power said. “It’s just negative this, negative that. I’m so tired of it.”