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The New West: With weak opponents, why do Democrats keep losing?

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Fair and square, Greg Gianforte prevailed in Montana’s special congressional election, held to fill the state’s lone House seat vacated when former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke became Donald Trump’s new Interior Secretary.

Some national pundits claimed Gianforte’s race against Democrat Rob Quist was a referendum on Trump’s presidency, or perhaps a harbinger for the GOP, but is it?

Before we examine these questions, let’s recap the bizarre events that unfolded just hours before the polls opened last week, when Gianforte allegedly “body slammed” Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian newspaper.

According to eyewitnesses, Gianforte grabbed the journalist around the neck and threw him to the ground after the scribe inconvenienced the candidate with a question Gianforte didn’t like. In fact, he wanted Gianforte to explain his position on health care legislation, passed by the GOP-controlled U.S. House, to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Without even knowing what the impacts of the House bill would be on their own constituents, most Republican representatives, including Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, voted for the bill. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office released its expert analysis noting the GOP plan would likely result in 23 million Americans losing health insurance.

In the build-up to the special election May 25, Gianforte had been cagey about his position and when pressed by Jacobs at a campaign event on May 24, he went into a rage.

At this point, the term “allegedly” with regard to the congressman-elect’s personal conduct seems almost moot. The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office in Bozeman recommended to the county attorney that, after reviewing evidence, there is probable cause for bringing a misdemeanor assault charge against Gianforte. And on the night he won and delivered his victory speech, Gianforte publicly apologized to Jacobs, acknowledging that what he did “was wrong.”

Should politicians be held to a higher standard? Most people would agree a mea culpa was the right thing to do. But there are a lot of folks who would lose their jobs, with cause, if they did something similar. Imagine if it had been a schoolteacher attacking a student?

Gianforte’s apology still doesn’t explain why, within minutes after the incident happened, his spokesman Shane Scanlon pulled his own Sean Spicer move. Scanlon quickly penned a press release claiming it had all been merely an accident and blamed it on Jacobs.

Scanlon’s action caused many to compare him to Spicer blatantly lying about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, and Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of “alternative facts.” But was it Gianforte who told him what to write?

Had a reporting crew from Fox News not been there to refute Scanlon’s claims, one wonders if Gianforte would have nobly confessed the truth or opportunistically defended the spin of his flack?

Gianforte has, in his own rhetoric, echoed Trump’s assertions that the media is the enemy of the state, but poignantly, and ironically, it was the presence and courage of journalists that documented Gianforte’s assault and ensured that the truth emerged.

Jerry Calvert, the respected professor emeritus in Montana State University’s political science department, has tracked many elections. Contrary to professional pundits in Washington and New York, he didn’t see this race as a referendum on Trump. However, he noted, it could be a harbinger as much for Democrats as Republicans.

“You had two pretty flawed and vulnerable candidates. This is a race the Democrats could’ve won but they didn’t,” he said. “Some wondered what might have happened if Gianforte had assaulted the reporter a month ago instead of on the eve of the election—might it have changed the result?”

Calvert’s answer: “Not necessarily, because the political structure in this country is really sick right now, starting at the top and going on down the line. You have some claiming the reporter had it coming.”

What’s scary for those who believe in the party of loyal opposition, he says, is that it’s rudderless; moreover, the Democratic Party’s anemic health in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho is an ongoing sign of problems—and disenfranchisement from its base—that started during the Clinton Administration, Calvert added.

“The Democratic National Committee has been weak and unfocused and it’s really at fault here,” he said. “It has pretty much written off the interior of the U.S. between the Appalachians and the Rockies, treating it as a no-go and it shows.”

At the same time, the GOP is now abiding a president with deepening legal and ethical issues, as well as a health care plan that could appreciably make the lives of many Americans worse.

It should be a golden opportunity for Democrats to gain traction with voters, but the party’s inability to win a race that could’ve been won exposes a serious lack of leadership.

Until the Democrats engage in honest, heartfelt introspection, admit their failings, stop denial, and find a strategy for reconnecting literally with a middle America that feels abandoned, losing will remain the norm.

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. Living in Bozeman, he is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

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