Trump Casts Shadow Over Tightening Montana Special Election A super-charged political environment and backlash against the GOP health care bill have made Thursday's special congressional election for Montana's lone House seat primed for a possible upset.
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Trump Casts Shadow Over Tightening Montana Special Election

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Trump Casts Shadow Over Tightening Montana Special Election

Trump Casts Shadow Over Tightening Montana Special Election

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Montana holds a special election tomorrow. It's to fill the congressional seat left open when Ryan Zinke joined President Trump's Cabinet as interior secretary. Montana is conservative. Trump won it by 20 points. But given the president's early troubles, Democrats say they've got a fighting chance. NPR's Don Gonyea has the story from Montana.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The candidates say this race is about local Montana issues, things like public land use and gun ownership rights and agriculture policy. But that doesn't mean it's not also about President Trump. The Republican, Greg Gianforte, is a political newcomer. He did run for governor last fall, and in that race he did not wholeheartedly embrace Trump. Trump carried Montana big and Gianforte lost. In this run Gianforte is echoing Trump's slogans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG GIANFORTE: And I look forward to taking my engineering skills, my ability to do math and the ability to find common ground with people with different views to have a good outcome for both sides back to D.C. to work with Donald Trump, to drain the swamp and make America great again. I'm excited about that.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Gianforte moved here 24 years ago, started a software company and sold it for more than a billion dollars. He's gotten lots of high-profile, out-of-town help on the trail. Vice President Mike Pence traveled here and did robocalls. Donald Trump Jr. also visited Montana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP JR: He doesn't need this job, just like my father didn't need this job. He wants this job because he loves this country. He wants his job because he loves this state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUIST AND UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) If I (unintelligible) car and I'll treat you by the sandbox (ph).

GONYEA: This is Democratic candidate Rob Quist harmonizing at a campaign event two nights ago. He is also new to politics, but he's well-known in the state for his long career as a country folk musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUIST AND UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Vocalizing).

GONYEA: One national issue that has taken center stage is health care. Republican Gianforte has praised the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act but stopped short of endorsing the GOP replacement bill. Democrat Quist, meanwhile, has been attacked for some serious financial troubles he's had over the years. He responds by blaming the health care system. A series of health events in the '90s, he says, led to those financial problems. He says the Republican bill would put lots of Americans in the same situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB QUIST: They call it the American Health Care Act, I call it un-American Health Care Act.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

QUIST: Because, you know, it brings - first of all, it raises premiums and - on everybody by over $300 a month. And bringing back the whole concept of pre-existing conditions, my health care issues have been well-documented throughout.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Quist has also gotten some high-profile help on the stump from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who barnstormed with them at several events over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: Rob understands that this is a profound human issue. Rob understands, you understand and I understand that health care is a right, not a privilege.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: Rob Quist has attracted volunteers who say they've never been involved in politics, including some motivated by the need to stand up to Trump. That includes 73-year-old Carol Boughton, a retired government geologist.

CAROL BOUGHTON: I just got so frustrated about what was going on and is still going on there in D.C. and got tired of talking to my friends of like minds and said, I've got to do something.

GONYEA: But Trump still has many strong loyalists in the state, among them 60-year-old Greg Hepp, a farmer who attended a Gianforte event in Great Falls yesterday. As if speaking to those still on the fence, Hepp says his candidate won't always be in lockstep with Trump.

GREG HEPP: I think he's going to be his own man. I think he's going to analyze what Trump's trying to do, whether it has to do with ag (ph) or with health care.

GONYEA: Covering the entire state, this should be a safe Republican seat. It's been in GOP hands for 20 years. But this conservative state that went so easily for Trump also has a Democratic U.S. senator and governor. Both Quist and Gianforte cite internal polls showing a tightening race. And both sides need to push turnout, a challenge in a special election taking place on a Thursday in late May. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Great Falls.

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