Montana delivers a wake-up call for the Democratic Party

by Michael Sean Winters

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In Montana last night, the Democratic Party received yet another wake-up call. Greg Gianforte won the special election for the state's one at-large member of the House of Representatives. Gianforte took 51 percent of the vote to 44 percent for Democrat Rob Quist. A Libertarian candidate took 6 percent.

Democrats will claim a "moral victory" noting that President Trump won the state last November by a margin of 20 points, and it has been a couple of decades since a Democrat represented Montana in the lower house of Congress. That is spin. Like the special election in Kansas to replace Mike Pompeo, who had become director of the CIA, a Republican candidate did not do as well as Trump had done, but the GOP won the race nonetheless.

At some point, Democrats need to stop winning "moral victories" and starting winning real ones.

Gianforte's win came a day after he allegedly body-slammed a reporter for asking a perfectly legitimate question about where the candidate stood on the GOP's "repeal and replace Obamacare" legislation. The morning of the election, three newspapers withdrew their prior endorsement of Gianforte and authorities announced they were charging him with misdemeanor assault.

It is true that many people in Montana had already voted by mail-in ballot before the election eve incident. But, as the incident was being reported, I had the gnawing sensation that it might not hurt Gianforte one bit. Sure enough, at his election night victory party, one of his supporters, Karen Screnar, told CNN, "We've watched how the press is one-sided. Excuse me, that's how I feel. (They're) making him their whipping boy so to speak through this campaign. There comes a point where, stop it." Her husband added that he thought Gianforte was "set up."

Many of us who live in blue America watch the news at night and are appalled by what we learn. The investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election seems to disclose new and damaging information every day. No matter what are the underlying action or actions that the Trump team is trying to cover up, what is obvious to all, Democrat and Republican, is that our country’s most important act of self-governance, an election, was the target of an attack by a hostile foreign power and not once, not even a little bit, has the president or his team expressed any horror at that fact. It is beyond creepy and borders on treasonous to learn that the president was yucking it up with the Russian foreign minister about how his firing of FBI Director James Comey had taken off "great pressure" regarding the investigation.

But, in the rest of the country, there is an alternative narrative. They see entrenched Washington interests, the "deep state," undermining the man they voted for precisely on the strength of his promise to "drain the swamp" that is Washington. They see a press corps that is not doing its job but is "out to get" the president. And, they can tune in to FOX News or check out Breitbart to get confirmation of their analysis.

Politico ran a piece this week about divided opinions among Democratic strategists with some wanting to focus on the Republicans' overhaul of the health care system, and others wanting to focus on the Russia investigations. David Brock's group, American Bridge, wants to focus on Russia but, as the article noted, "some strategists [are] speculating the Brock-led American Bridge may have more of an eye on wooing donors intensely interested in the Russia investigation than picking winning issues for 2018." Who would have thought it? Inside the Beltway activists and campaign strategists more interested in lining their pockets than actually winning races?

Health care reform will have a real life impact on millions of Americans. The investigation into Russian meddling in the election is now in the hands of a special counsel and could take years before we get to the bottom of it. This is not a tough call. But, in the strange world of politics within a party that is out of power completely, the donors and the single issue activists yield disproportionate influence. They may be able to make blue states bluer, but they are clueless about how to flip a state or a district from red to blue. Think of the dust-up over the mild pro-life stance of Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello which, in the event, likely cost him that election.

I am as disgusted by the Russia investigation as the next person, but unless Democrats get out of the Beltway and Brooklyn and start finding out why so many millions of Americans are willing to give Trump and his allies a pass, they will remain in the political wilderness. Moral victories will not gain them control of the House or the Senate. In Montana, you can't blame re-districting. And, if you think Montana is just too conservative for any Democrat, explain why they have a Democratic governor and senator. Montana is not more red than Massachusetts is blue, yet in 2010, Republican Scott Brown won the seat opened by the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Democrats need to stop making excuses and start winning elections, and they won't win elections until they break out of the bubble they are in and listen to people who remain willing to give Trump a chance. That is the exact measure of those voters' disconnect from Washington. Prediction: Many Democrats today will complain about Trump's tongue-lashing of our NATO allies for not paying their share of the alliance's budget, even though many Americans watched the same speech and said to themselves "It's about time."  Democrats need to reconnect or they will keep garnering moral victories and the GOP will still control the speaker's gavel.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]

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