- Despite strong establishment backing and a centrist campaign message, Democratic U.S. House candidate John Lewis still lost by more than 15 points.
- Lewis’ lackluster performance on election day spells trouble for Montana Democrats who saw their tried and true method of garnering success in statewide campaigns failed to make the race competitive, leading to questions about the Montana Democrats’ messaging and ability to connect with voters.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Montana’s election results last week was the ease with which Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke dispatched his opponent, Democrat John Lewis. Despite strong establishment backing and a centrist campaign message, Lewis still lost by more than 15 points.
While the official results have yet to be certified, the final tally in the U.S. House race according to the Montana Secretary of State’s Office is 201,436 votes to Zinke for 55.47 percent, and 146,474 votes to Lewis for 40.34 percent. Lewis garnered just 500 votes more than Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis, who was thrown into the race in mid-August after the Walsh plagiarism scandal and who ran a decidedly left-wing campaign against a sitting U.S. congressman.
Lewis’ lackluster performance on election day spells trouble for Montana Democrats who saw their tried and true method — strong unity around a candidate, a “centrist” campaign emphasis, and highlighting GOP divisions — of garnering success in statewide campaigns failed to make the race competitive, leading to questions about the Montana Democrats’ message and their ability to connect with voters.
The results surprised many across the state. On election day, a source close to the Montana GOP told Media Trackers that the party believed that Zinke would run about 8 points behind Daines. The conventional wisdom was that a number of voters who voted for Daines for Senate would “crossover” and vote for the more moderate Democrat (Lewis) in the House race to be able to consider themselves “bi-partisan.”
Such a “crossover vote” never materialized, however. Zinke ran just three points behind Daines, and it appears as though the only candidate who likely took votes from Zinke was the libertarian candidate Mike Fellows, who received just over 15,000 votes, or 4.16 percent.
Some commentators have been quick to place the blame for the Democrats’ poor performance in Montana on the party’s inability to differentiate between itself and President Barack Obama, who remains widely unpopular in Montana. However, the president was unpopular in the state in 2012 and Democrats still managed to win the U.S. Senate race, the Governor’s Mansion — albeit in very close races — and three of the four remaining major statewide offices.
Other liberal commentators have suggested that Democratic candidates should stop trying to be “moderate” and “centrist” and fully embrace a more liberal ideology. That idea drew a stern rebuke from the anonymous left-wing political blog, the Montana Cowgirl.
“For those who believe that the Democrats should unabashedly come out against the Keystone pipeline, or unabashedly for a pro-immigration position, I have news for you: such positions are extremely unpopular in states like Montana, and very polarizing too. The greenlighting of the Keystone pipeline, for example, is supported by 85% of Montana voters. Coming out strongly against it, and shouting it from the mountaintop, provides no electoral benefit,” state the Montana Cowgirl in a post last week.
Lewis began running in the fall of last year. As a career staffer for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), Lewis garnered immediate support amongst both the state and national Democratic establishments. The D.C.-based liberal political consulting firm Hilltop Public Solutions — which was instrumental in the re-election of Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and the election of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock — launched and ran Lewis’ campaign.
Lewis coasted through the primary with only token opposition, saving him from a costly primary battle, both politically and financially, unlike Zinke who endured a brutal five-way primary that saw him win with barely 30 percent of the vote. Zinke struggled at times to connect with the Republican Party’s conservative base.
In May, a Zinke staffer told Media Trackers that the campaign was quite concerned about Lewis’ significant financial advantages post-primary.
Like his former boss Max Baucus, Lewis ran a campaign that emphasized his “middle-of-the-road” policy stances. He released ads that talked about cutting congressional pay and put forth an energy plan that tried to balance renewable energy with fossil fuel. He even tried to run the right of Zinke on some issues, releasing an ad that touted his “AQ” rating from the NRA and quoted certain pro-gun activists who questioned Zinke’s commitment to the 2nd Amendment.
The Lewis campaign also piled up endorsements from multiple major Montana newspapers, including the state’s largest, the Billings Gazette.
Despite these advantages, Lewis still barely received 40 percent of the vote.