American president Donald Trump may be far away from the US capital this week as he continues his first foreign visit as president, but back home challenges still loom for him.
On Thursday voters in Montana go to the polls in one of several "special elections" scheduled this year, this time to elect a successor to Ryan Zinke, who Trump appointed as interior secretary.
The front-runners in the race are Greg Gianforte, a millionaire tech executive who is running for the Republican party, and Democratic candidate Rob Quist, a well-known country music singer-songwriter.
Gianforte is expected to ultimately win, but some Republicans are nervous that the race is becoming too close
Like last month's special election in Atlanta, Georgia, which saw Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff come within touching distance of clinching the seat in this traditionally Republican district in the first-round vote, this week's election in Montana is being viewed as a bellwether of public attitudes towards Trump.
While Republicans have held the seat for two decades, and Gianforte is expected to ultimately win, some Republicans are nervous that the race is becoming too close, with Gianforte’s lead in the polls narrowing in recent weeks.
The rural state, though traditionally Republican in terms of congressional votes – Trump won congressional districts in Montana by more than 20 points – currently has a Democratic mayor, who won re-election in November, so the state is not averse to voting blue.
Quist has campaigned strongly on healthcare, lambasting the Republican's American Healthcare Act, the proposed replacement for Obamacare. Gianforte has allied himself with Trump, telling a campaign rally this month that he wanted to "help Donald Trump drain the swamp out there".
The cowboy hat-wearing candidate has also attracted about $6 million in funding from Democrat donors and some high-profile support; Bernie Sanders campaigned alongside him last weekend.
This in turn has prompted Republicans to pump money into ad campaigns, with concern growing about turnout rates for an election that is being held on the eve of a bank holiday weekend.
Georgia and South Carolina
As well as the Montana contest, two more special elections are also looming in the next month: the run-off for the sixth congressional district of Georgia, and a vote in South Carolina to appoint a successor to Mick Mulvaney, who was appointed Trump's director of office of budget and management.
Democrats are still hopeful that the 30-year-old newcomer Jon Ossoff can still clinch the seat, despite Republicans this time around rallying behind one candidate, former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel. South Carolina is almost certainly going to go Republican, with the result that the Democratic National Committee is focusing more resources on the Georgia and Montana battles.
The outcome of the special elections is being closely watched by Republican strategists ahead of next year’s midterm elections, for signs of whether the “Trump effect” is beginning to become a liability for the party.
Further bad news on the healthcare front was expected on Wednesday from the Congressional Budget Office
The series of scandals that have engulfed the president in the 10 days preceding his departure for Saudi Arabia last weekend have spurred nerves within some Republican ranks, although a recent poll found that support among Trump's core supporters remains well above 80 per cent. This is unlikely to be enough to swing the votes in districts where Republicans are facing an uphill battle for re-election, however.
Further bad news on the healthcare front was expected on Wednesday from the Congressional Budget Office, which was expected to publish its latest analysis of the proposal.
Nonetheless, Republican strategists have chosen to call on Trump, with the American president recording an automatic phone message that is being delivered to voters by telephone over the past few days, urging the voters of Montana to back Gianforte. Vice-president Mike Pence has also visited the state, campaigning for the Republican candidate over two days.
When the results begin to roll in from Montana on Thursday night, all eyes will be on any trend that may be a harbinger of things to come in next year’s midterms and Trump’s impact on his party.