The much-anticipated Congressional Budget Office score on the GOP’s American Health Care Act will be released on Wednesday. One day later, the polls will close in Montana’s special election for the state’s sole House seat, which pits Democratic musician Rob Quist against Republican businessman Greg Gianforte. (A Libertarian Party candidate is also competing for the seat.)
For Democrats, the timing is ideal. Quist, a populist who is campaigning with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) this weekend, has aggressively run against the AHCA, dubbing it a “tax cut for millionaires.” Gianforte, who told The Washington Post last month that Republicans needed a majority to prevent debacles like the first failed AHCA push, was caught on tape telling donors that he supported AHCA — though he had not taken an official position on the revised (and un-scored bill). And Quist, who announced this week that he’d raised $5 million for a race that Democrats debated whether to compete in, is closing out the campaign with two ads about health care.
In “Pre-Existing,” Quist attempts to reframe the main Republican attack on him — that he’s left a trail of tax liens and debts — by pinning his financial problems on health insurance costs. “Half of all Montanans have a preexisting conditions; mine was a botched surgery,” says Quist.
In “Half,” the same footage is repurposed for Quist to tell his story and the stories of a half-dozen people at a campaign picnic. “We’re all thankful to be here,” Quist says. “Greg Gianforte says he’s thankful for the new health-care bill, the one that eliminates protections for preexisting conditions and raises premiums on every Montanan who has one.”
The AHCA would not “eliminate” the portion of the Affordable Care Act that bars insurer discrimination against people with preexisting conditions. It would, however, allow states to waive that portion of the law and toss affected patients into a high-risk pool — a position that Republicans have struggled to sell back home.
Tellingly, Gianforte’s ads barely mention health care at all. Closing spots from his campaign, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Congressional Leadership Fund all whack the Democrat over unpaid taxes, warning voters that he’d be hard to trust with their money.
But the impact of the ads and the AHCA headlines is hard to gauge. Both campaigns have worked to get their bases to vote early, with at least 200,000 voters already having turned in their ballots by early Friday morning. Turnout has been slightly higher in Republican-leaning counties, though Quist, unusually for a Democrat, has worked to win his home base of Flathead County — usually a conservative stronghold.
A Quist victory would shock Republicans, who’ve seen the race shrink to a single-digit dogfight despite plenty of money and campaign visits by Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Pence. But a Gianforte victory of any size would allow Republicans to once again mock the minority party for its “moral victories,” and soothe some of the nerves that jangled during this week’s controversies.
“I don’t think the other guys take a hard look at investigating Trump unless they lose in Montana and Georgia,” one Democratic congressman told The Washington Post this week.