It’s campaign season in Montana — and the political mudslinging is already giving our airwaves and social media networks the aura of a cattle feedlot. As candidates and political committees trade salvos, Montana Free Press will dissect the key political attack lines to dig out the facts embedded in the sludge.

THE MUCK

Among the many lines of attack lobbed by Democrats against the Republican candidate for governor, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, is a claim that the congressman has shirked his duties representing Montanans in Washington, D.C. — specifically that he has “missed more votes than 93% of Congress.”

That statistic anchors a website set up by the Montana Democratic Party, noshowgreg.com, where the party accuses Gianforte of skipping a House vote on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding and features the congressman’s face photoshopped onto a Where’s Waldo cartoon.

For good measure, the website also features the mug shot taken following Gianforte’s conviction for his 2017 assault on a reporter depicted as an old-west-style poster reading “Wanted for multiple counts of truancy.”

Screen capture from noshowgreg.com, an attack website set up by the Montana Democratic Party.

The attack line has also been used by the Montana Democratic Party in emails sent to reporters as recently as Aug. 26, when the party distributed a message leading with the 93% statistic and calling out missed votes on education funding.

“No Show Greg has spent his time in Congress playing hooky instead of showing up for the safety and wellbeing of Montana’s students and educators,” the party’s Deputy Communications Director Matt Fidel said in that email.

The absentee claim and the 93% statistic have also shown up in a several guest opinion pieces published by Democratic allies in Montana newspapers this summer, including columns by Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis in the Helena Independent Record, former state budget director David Ewer in Butte’s Montana Standard, and public health expert Cora Neumann in the Missoulian.

“Montana has one representative in the House — and we rely on our sole congressman to show up and represent Montana’s interests,” wrote Neumann, who briefly sought the Democratic party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate this year. “But Gianforte evidently couldn’t be bothered to accomplish the bare minimum of what we sent him to Washington to do.”

THE FACTS

The Democratic Party said this week the 93% figure is sourced to a missed-congressional-vote dashboard maintained by the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica, which was also cited by a May report by MTN News. At the time, ProPublica’s numbers indicated that Gianforte had missed 10.5% of votes in this year’s Congress, more than all but 29 other U.S. representatives.

With 435 voting members in the U.S. House, that means Gianforte had in fact at that point missed fewer votes than 7% of his congressional colleagues, or more votes than 93% of them.

However, the ProPublica dashboard also indicates that the bulk of Gianforte’s missed votes in the 2019-20 Congress, 74 of 85, occurred over a two-day span last year. The U.S. House spent June 12 and 13 voting on a series of amendments to an appropriations bill allocating federal funding for the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC.

That bill, H.R. 2740, ultimately passed the Democrat-controlled U.S. House June 19 of last year, with Gianforte present to join his fellow Republicans in voting against it. The measure then stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, though some of its provisions were incorporated into a pair of consolidated budget bills signed by President Donald Trump in December.

Gianforte was absent from the U.S. Capitol over the two-day span in June because he was back in Montana, accompanying Vice President Mike Pence on a visit to Billings. That visit, which drew media attention as Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines flew into Billings with Pence on Air Force Two, came just before Gianforte announced his bid for governor June 14.

While the Democratic rhetoric has sought to depict Gianforte’s absenteeism as a consistent pattern, his decision to join the vice president for that single trip is, mathematically speaking, the primary factor driving his missed-vote score. If that two-day period is excluded from the calculations, Gianforte has missed 1.4% of votes so far in the 2019-20 Congress — a figure that would put him firmly in the middle of the congressional pack for absenteeism.

THE CONTEXT

Most members of Congress miss at least some roll call votes, according to ProPublica’s data, though there’s a wide range between the most- and least-present members. Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, for example, has missed 38% of her votes in this two-year Congress. Wyoming’s sole representative, Republican Liz Cheney, has missed 3.6%.

Jennifer Nicoll Victor, a political scientist who studies Congress as an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia, said Gianforte’s absenteeism rate “appears to be higher than average, but is by no means negligent.”

She added that it isn’t necessarily surprising that a minority-party congressman would decide that joining a high-profile vice presidential visit to his home state was a reasonable use of his time.

“Arguably that’s more important than being on the losing end of a whole string of votes,” she said. 

“Attacking a political opponent for absenteeism is a pretty classic negative campaign tactic,” Victor said. “It tends to be more successful when there are credible data to back up the criticism, but in this case the criticism appears to be on thin ice.”

Victor also faulted the framing used by the Democratic attack, saying the wording of the “missed more votes than 93% of Congress” claim could be misleading.

“Humans are really bad at interpreting percentages,” she said. “What a lot of people will think when they read this is ‘missed 93% of votes’ — which is of course totally different.”

Reader messages received by MTFP in recent weeks confirm that at least some Montanans have been confused by Democrats’ messaging, with one reader specifically asking about “Gianforte’s 97% of missing votes in Congress.”

THE DEMOCRATIC DEFENSE

Montana Democrats doubled down on the truancy attack line this week, calling it “of course” fair. 

“Rep. Gianforte missed those votes, because he decided to fly back to Montana with the VP to announce his run for Governor,” said Fidel, the party spokesman. “When Gianforte wasn’t present for those votes — including a critical vote to fund the CDC — he made clear that he prioritizes his political ambitions over the wellbeing of Montanans.”

Gianforte announced his run for Montana governor at the state GOP convention in Helena June 14. He isn’t recorded as having missed any roll call votes in Washington, D.C., that day.

GIANFORTE’S RESPONSE

Gianforte spokesman Travis Hall accused Democrats of “misleading Montanans” by not telling the full story about the missed votes on bill amendments Hall derided as “highly partisan, big-spending, budget-busting appropriations measures.”

The vice president’s visit to Billings, Hall said, included a roundtable discussion about methamphetamine use in Montana and a visit to a drug addiction treatment facility.

“If given another opportunity to fly with Vice President Pence and talk with him one-on-one about critical issues facing Montana, like combating the meth epidemic, he’d do it again in a heartbeat — it’s his job,” Hall said.

More MuckWatch

The China conundrum

As incumbent Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Steve Bullock continue to campaign for U.S. Senate, Daines’ record working with, and in, China has become a campaign issue, with both sides using Daines’ record regarding the country as evidence that he would either advocate policies that benefit China at the expense of Montanans (the Bullock camp’s position), or is the representative Montanans need to bring jobs outsourced overseas back to America.

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.