HELENA — Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican in his second term in the U.S. House, joined Wednesday with all members of his party in voting against impeaching Republican President Donald J. Trump.
Gianforte, in a speech on the House floor, called impeachment a sham and partisan process he said was baseless.
Democrats hold a majority in the House and had enough votes to pass the articles. Once that happens, the process moves to the Senate, where senators will hold a trial early next year to determine whether Trump should be removed from office. That is extremely unlikely, as Republicans are the majority in the Senate and no members of the party in either chamber have indicated they would break ranks and vote against the president.
“House Democrats’ hyper-partisan impeachment has been a sham since Day One, driven by those whose bitter rage against President Trump has blinded their better judgement," Gianforte said on the House floor. "The fact is they resolved to overturn the results of the 2016 election the day President Trump won."
Gianforte echoed many of the arguments made by others in his caucus, saying he said he did not believe there were compelling or overwhelming reasons to impeach Trump, and that it was Democrats' way to revise the outcome of the president's election.
“I will vote against this partisan impeachment sham. Let’s get back to the work the American people sent us here to do," Gianforte said.
Montana's lone representative in the U.S. House is not seeking re-election in 2020 and is instead making his second bid for governor in four years. He lost in 2016 to incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who is termed out from running again. The GOP primary this cycle is a crowded one, also including Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski.
Gianforte was first elected to Montana’s at-large seat in a 2017 special election, to fill a vacancy created when Trump appointed Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior. Gianforte then won re-election in 2018, defeating Democrat and former state lawmaker Kathleen Williams, of Bozeman.
Lee Banville, a political analyst and professor at the University of Montana, said Wednesday a no-vote from Gianforte would be “in no way surprising."
Gianforte has long tied himself to Trump. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., visited Montana several times to support Gianforte in his 2017 election and again several times in 2018. Trump Jr. also came to Helena late last month to speak at a fundraiser for Gianforte's gubernatorial bid.
The president also made four visits to Montana in 2018, where he advocated for Gianforte’s re-election, including in comments to a packed rally in Missoula where he referenced and praised Gianforte’s 2017 assault on a reporter.
“Whether it was running for the seat or running for his re-election to the seat, (Gianforte has) made his connection to the president quite clear,” Banville said. “He’s never been shy about talking about how he meets with him, how he has an open line of communication to the president and that’s critical and part of his sales pitch for Congress.”
The Senate is expected to hold its trial early next year. Like Gianforte, fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines has made clear he does not support impeachment or removing Trump from office.
Daines is up for re-election in 2020. On Wednesday after the House vote, he issued a statement condemning impeachment.
“Democrats have been obsessed with impeaching President Trump and overturning the will of the American people since before he was even sworn into office. This unprecedented impeachment sham has now been dumped on the lap of the United States Senate. It’s time to put an end to this and get back to work for the American people.” Daines said.
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While Republicans are functioning as a bloc when it comes to votes on impeachment, it’s a more difficult path for Democrats, especially ones from states like Montana that at the presidential level have voted solidly for Republicans for decades. The last time Montana went blue on the presidential level was for former President Bill Clinton in 1992.
Montana’s only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, senior U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, said in a statement Wednesday he would perform the job required of him.
“As jurors, each of us will take an oath to uphold our Constitutional duty to deliver a fair and honest trial. The American people expect transparency from their government, and for their representatives to exercise that Constitutional duty to evaluate the evidence before us and follow the facts wherever they lead,” Tester said. “That is what I intend to do.”
Polling in Montana is not frequent or often reliable. The two most recent polls available and conducted by public universities both captured small sample sizes and come with notable margins of error, but offer similar insights into what Montanans may be thinking.
They were both conducted this fall, shortly after Pelosi announced the formal impeachment process. The Big Sky Poll from the University of Montana and Mountain States Poll from Montana State University Billings show 52% and 59%, respectively, of those polled did not want Trump impeached and removed from office, while 39% and 33% approved of impeachment. The rest were undecided.
“Public opinion polls are few and far between, but there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of unease among enough voters in Montana to really change dynamics,” Banville said. “Even the most Democrat-friendly polls we’ve seen indicate people don’t support impeaching and removing the president here. It really is a question of whether Tester will test that.”
Tester has not said whether he plans to seek re-election, which would happen next in 2024. While he faced strong attacks last year from Trump, including after the senator raised concerns about the president's nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs department, that saga has largely faded from public discussion. Banville said an impeachment vote is momentous enough to have more sticking power.
“You can almost hear the ad running, even though it’s four years out, that says when this critical moment came up, (Tester) went with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to thwart the will of Montanans. That’s what they’re going to say,” Banville said.
Banville said it will be interesting to see how vocal Daines becomes in his support of Trump through the Senate trial.
“He has at times stepped up and spoken out in ways, like when President Trump criticized the four freshman female members of Congress, where Daines didn’t have to get involved and he chose to,” Banville said. Daines likewise criticized the congresswomen.
There are potential hazards to that approach when it comes to impeachment, Banville said, though probably not for Daines' upcoming election.
“It’s not a tremendous electoral risk, but you never know what’s going to happen in the future and if you are full-throatedly defending a politician that later on does something really bad, you are on the record and on the hook as being a supporter,” Banville said.
If Tester does vote for impeachment, and moderates and independents are upset, Banville said he would have time before a potential run for re-election to explain his thinking to voters.
“He’s always been open to those conversations and he has years to discuss it with them, to look them in their eye and shake their hand and say, ‘I understand why you’re mad but this is why I did it,’” Banville said. “Similarly if he votes against it and Democrats are really mad at him, he has that open approach that gives him a chance to let some of that steam that may have built up off.”