Secretly recorded audio of Republican congressional nominee Greg Gianforte speaking to Washington, D.C., lobbyists revealed a far different message on repeal of the Affordable Care Act than what the candidate had been saying to Montana voters.
The New York Times received leaked audio recording of a conference call where Gianforte spoke about health care repeal while asking lobbyists to rush his campaign $5,000 contributions.
Gianforte has been publicly wary of repeal in Montana, while on the call to lobbyists Gianforte gave thanks for the 217-213 vote to repeal. "Sounds like we just passed a health care thing, which I’m thankful for, sounds like we’re starting to repeal and replace."
The very same day Gianforte was giving thanks for repeal, a spokesman for Gianforte was declining to give the candidate's position on repeal, "Greg needs to know all the facts, because it’s important to know exactly what’s in the bill before he votes on it."
The secretly recorded -- then leaked -- audio painted a far different story.
"Mr. Gianforte’s attempt to appeal to two different audiences — Montana voters skeptical about the House’s repeal bill and Washington Republicans eager to undo President Barack Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment — illustrates the complicated politics surrounding the health law," the New York Times explained. "While Republicans expect their elected officials to fulfill their longstanding vows to tear up the Affordable Care Act, the broader electorate is uneasy about abandoning the law’s protections and benefits it has come to depend on."
Or, as the Rachel Maddow Show put it, "Imagine that. A GOP candidate saying one thing to voters in Montana, and then saying something else to donors in D.C."
The audio tape reported by the New York Times was also verified by Lee Montana newspapers.
Montana's May 25 special election for congress has been receiving national attention as the only statewide congressional race in 2017. The contest is to fill the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke following his confirmation as Interior Secretary. A poll by the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group -- conducted prior to the vote by House Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act -- found a single digit race.
Health insurance coverage could be a deciding issue for a large number of voters. A recent analysis by the Montana Budget and Policy Center predicts 142,000 Montanans could lose health insurance upon repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Quist, Gianforte's opponent in the special election, has received a flood of donations by seizing upon health care repeal and contrasting it with his own strong support for single payer health care reform.
In fact, Quist's support for single payer resulted in the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) branding Quist as, Montana's Bernie Sanders. On that point, there may be agreement. “Rob Quist is the only person in this race who understands that we need a government in Washington that works for all Montanans and all Americans and not just the special interests and the billionaire class,” Sen. Sanders said in a statement announcing he would be campaigning for Quist. Our Revolution, the organization Sanders founded following his presidential bid, is raising money online for Quist.
Quist's Sanders-like combination of bold populism and online fundraising seem to be frustrating his Republican opponent.
"The Democrats have fired up this ActBlue organization,” Gainforte complained to the lobbyists assembled for his fundraising conference call. “We’re seeing about $70,000 a day pouring into the state from liberals in San Francisco, New York and Hollywood.”
“We’re in a single-digit race,” Gianforte worried. “The Democrats would like nothing more than to put one up on the board and take this away from us to stop the Trump Train and block tax reform and block the regulations we’ll be able to peel back.”
Democrats pounced on news of the leaked audio recording. DNC Chair Tom Perez sent a fundraising email that characterized the scandal as, "the kind of brazen, cynical talking out of both sides of one's mouth that you'd expect from the bad-guy politician in a cheesy movie." The Montana Democratic Party said it was a question of trustworthiness, "New Jersey multimillionaire and failed gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte is struggling to explain why he purposefully misled Montanans about his support for the disastrous health care bill."
Gianforte wasn't just criticized by Democratic Party organizations, but also directly from his opponent.
"After refusing to say how he would have voted on the disastrous D.C. health care bill, it turns out Greg Gianforte was saying something different to the special-interest lobbyists bankrolling his campaign," stated Rob Quist. "We need an independent voice in Congress who will stand up to the special interests, not a dishonest politician who says one thing to Montanans and another to the millionaires behind closed doors."
Meanwhile, national Republicans have been pouring money into Montana to defend a congressional seat in a state Donald Trump carried by twenty points. That job may have gotten harder thanks to whichever lobbyist recorded and leaked this audio.
"The very same day he told Montana voters that he just wasn’t sure how he would have voted on ACA repeal, he told a well-heeled group of D.C. lobbyists that we should celebrate its repeal," wrote Don Pogreba, a Helena educator who analyzes Montana politics. "That’s the kind of D.C. positioning that will kill a candidate in Montana."
"To tell the audience back home one thing while telling lobbyists another confirms the worst impressions about Mr. Gianforte, that he cannot be trusted, and worse yet, that he doesn’t trust Montana voters enough to tell us the truth about what he believes," Pogreba continued. "It could be a mortal blow for a campaign that is already reeling."
During the call, Montana Senator Steve Daines announced that Vice President Mike Pence would travel out west to help defend the Republican seat, campaigning with Gianforte at MetraPark Pavilion in Billings this Friday night. Previously, Donald Trump Jr. toured Montana as part of the White House effort to raise money for Gianforte.
The leaked audio recording was released the same week Montana absentee voters received ballots for the May 25th special election. Watch the local news coverage of the scandal:
Related Raw Story coverage of the 2017 Montana Special Election and Greg Gianforte: