MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
After two close-but-no-cigar moments - last week in Kansas, then this week in Georgia - Democrats are plotting their next move. Democrats came closer than was widely expected in that House special election in Kansas and came very close to a win on Tuesday in Georgia, but that state is now headed to a runoff in June. Across the country, Democratic strategists and pollsters say their voters are energized. The question is - are they energized enough to actually chalk up a win?
Well, the next state where that question will be in play is Montana. And to talk about that, we are joined in the studio by Geoff Garin. He's a Democratic political strategist, president of Hart Research. He has been watching potential voters in Montana, and he is here now. Hello, Geoff.
GEOFF GARIN: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: We should let people know Montanans go to the polls May 25. They are voting to fill that state's only House seat, which we'll note is open because the former holder of that seat, Congressman Ryan Zinke, has joined the Trump administration as secretary of the interior. So how is the race to replace him shaping up?
GARIN: Well, it's shaping up to be a real battle, again, unexpectedly. Secretary Zinke was elected and then re-elected by a 15-point margin. So you would think that the Republicans would be well-positioned to have a very comfortable victory in Montana. But that is not the way that it's playing out. The Republicans themselves appear to be hypernervous about the state. They've already spent a little over a million dollars. And Montana is a interesting state. It is - you know, while it has been reliably red in presidential elections, Montana does elect Democrats from time to time.
KELLY: Right. They've got a Democratic governor right now.
GARIN: Has a Democratic governor and has a Democratic senator in Jon Tester. And the Democrats have a very nontraditional candidate in Rob Quist who...
KELLY: I was going to ask you. For people who are not in Montana or may not be following the race closely yet, introduce us to both candidates.
GARIN: Well, the Democratic candidate is a fellow named Rob Quist who is not a politician. He is a singing cowboy and a...
KELLY: He plays a banjo, I read.
GARIN: He does.
GARIN: He seems in touch with the tenor of the state these days. And we're in a moment, not just in Montana but America, where it is a good thing not to be a career politician.
KELLY: I was watching one of his campaign ads online. And it ends with a line - something to the effect of, vote for me; we already have enough millionaires in Washington.
GARIN: Right. And speaking of which, his opponent, Greg Gianforte, is a millionaire and has just come off a losing race for governor and came out of that race pretty bruised. And I think people see a real opportunity for a real upset in Montana.
KELLY: What lessons did Democrats learn from those last two races that have just played out that we mentioned, the ones in Kansas and Georgia?
GARIN: I think, you know, the one thing that strikes me out of both Kansas and the Georgia elections is that you can't think about these elections in traditional ways that we look at these, quote, unquote, "likely voter universes" based on past history. And past history may not be a very good indicator of what people are going to do in 2017 and 2018 because Donald Trump has really shuffled the deck and reshuffled the deck in important ways. And I think part of the message to Democrats is do not write off any votes. Do not count any voter out of the electorate, even if they didn't turn out in previous elections.
KELLY: Now all that said, I mentioned these two close-but-no-cigar moments that Democrats have just witnessed in Kansas and Georgia. How important is it to actually chalk up a victory in Montana or another race coming forward?
GARIN: Well, it would be great for that to happen. I think, you know, these special elections have a canary-in-the-coal-mine quality to them. And they've really been pretty good indicators of what's going to happen further down the road. And so that - here, we're trying to win seats that Republicans had previously won by 25 points or, in the case of Montana, 15 points previously. Well, in the November 2018 elections, the Republicans are going to be defending a whole host of seats that they won by much smaller margins.
KELLY: Well, I know you're paid to be optimistic on behalf of Democratic candidates. But...
GARIN: Well, I'm known among my colleagues as the house pessimist.
KELLY: Oh, are you? All right. So you're sounding optimistic.
GARIN: But here, I am. I think that this incredible energy among Democratic voters is really significant. And I think it's going to be durable all the way into November 2018.
KELLY: All right. Geoff Garin - he's a Democratic political strategist, president of Hart Research, giving us a little preview of how things may play out in Montana come May.
GARIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.