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Montana Holds Special Election For Open House Seat


Special elections provide clues to the mood of the country and sometimes foreshadow the next national election. This year, there are five such contests, four of them prompted by Republicans leaving Congress to join the Trump administration, so they had to be replaced. Montana holds a special election tomorrow to replace former GOP congressman, now Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. NPR's Don Gonyea is there, and he joins us from Great Falls.

And Don, I assume you chose that location so that we could say you're in Great Falls because it just sounds so awesome...

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: (Laughter) Exactly.

INSKEEP: What's the district like?

GONYEA: Well, it's big. It's the entire state...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GONYEA: ...A state Donald Trump won by 20 points (laughter). It's also - it's conservative, but Montana does sometimes elect Democrats in statewide elections, like the current governor and one of Montana's U.S. senators. But the congressional seat has been Republican for 20 years.

INSKEEP: And we should just emphasize it's the entire state 'cause just not that many people in Montana - very, very big state geographically.

Who's running?

GONYEA: Well, let's meet them both, starting with Democrat Rob Quist. He's known across Montana for his long career as a folk/country/bluegrass singer. These days, he's playing at his own campaign events.


ROB QUIST AND HALLADAY QUIST: (Singing) Hey, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, oh...

GONYEA: That's him with his daughter at a rally in Great Falls two nights ago. Quist is 69, a political newcomer, not particularly polished. He always wears his cowboy hat. He has some baggage that his opponent and outside groups have attacked. He's had financial problems, some large debt. Quist blames health care troubles he had decades ago. Now he uses that to talk about the proposed GOP health care plan.


ROB QUIST: They come at the American Health Care Act. I come at the un-American Health Care Act because, you know, it brings - first of all, it raises premiums 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...


GONYEA: Now let's go to the other candidate, the Republican, Greg Gianforte. This is from a meet-and-greet yesterday at a park in Great Falls.


GREG GIANFORTE: We have a volunteer sheet here. If you can give us one hour between now and Thursday to make a few phone calls - you can do them from home...

GONYEA: Gianforte moved here from New Jersey 24 years ago - one attack on him this campaign, that he is an outsider. He started a software company and talks of how he created hundreds of jobs in Montana. When he eventually sold it, he became a multimillionaire. He's a conservative Christian and a fiscal conservative.


GIANFORTE: And I look forward to taking my engineering skills, my ability to do math and the ability to find common ground with people of 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.


INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Don Gonyea who is in Montana. And Don, I'm sure that people are going to view this special election as a referendum on President Trump. Does it sound like such a thing when you're there?

GONYEA: Well, Trump hangs over everything. But mostly, they've talked about local issues, guns - they're both pro-Second Amendment - and the use of public lands, for example. But Vice President Pence has come to campaign here, as has Donald Trump Jr., as has Bernie Sanders.

INSKEEP: Wow. Which suggests so much pressure on the line. Do Republicans still have an edge, though?

GONYEA: Yeah. And though Gianforte talks about how tight the race has gotten, maybe that's just, you know, getting rid of any overconfidence by voters. Quist talks about it being a dead heat. But Steve, he is going to need votes from independent voters who once supported Trump.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Don Gonyea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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