Political pundits were closely watching last night’s special election in Montana for two reasons: to see if there is an anti-Trump sentiment shift in this hard-line republican state, and whether the “body slamming” scandal that sent shockwaves just one day prior would cost Republican frontrunner Greg Gianforte the election.
The results emerged early on Friday morning, when Republican Greg Gianforte, a wealthy technology executive who had urged voters to send him to Congress to help Trump, was projected to win Thursday’s special election for Montana’s lone House seat with about 50% of the vote, while challenger Democrat Rob Quist had 44% at the time of the call, according to the Montana secretary of State’s website. Quist, a banjo player and first-time candidate, had focused his campaign on criticism of the Republican effort to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.
Gianforte’s victory came only hours after a shocking physical altercation with Guardian reported Ben Jacobs, whose audio was recorded and disseminated, led to the local sheriff filing a misdemeanor assault charge against the republican. Gianforte is scheduled to appear in county court sometime before June 7—the charge carries a maximum fine of $500 or a prison term of no more than six months.
And while the news blanketed the news and prompted three major Montana papers to pull their endorsement of Gianforte, the Republican was buoyed by how many voters sent in their ballots early, making their choice before the altercation. According to Reuters, it was unclear if Gianforte’s assault had an impact on the vote. More than a third of the state’s registered voters had already submitted ballots before it happened, state election officials said, and some Gianforte supporters shrugged off the charges or said they did not believe published accounts.
“I feel like, it’s all just propaganda, you know what I mean, it’s hard for me to believe anything the media tells me,” said Nathaniel Trumper, who cast a vote for Gianforte at a polling station in Helena.
The assault occurred as Jacobs tried to ask Gianforte about healthcare, according to an audio tape. Fox News Channel reporter Alicia Acuna, who was preparing to interview Gianforte, said the candidate “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him to the ground.”
Speaking to cheering supporters in Bozeman after his win, Gianforte apologized for the incident and said he was not proud of his actions. “I should not have responded the way I did, and for that I’m sorry,” Gianforte said. “I should not have treated that reporter that way.”
Gianforte specifically addressed his apology to Jacobs. “Last night I made a mistake,” he said, adding: “I’m sorry, Mr Ben Jacobs.”
The victory will calm Republicans who had grown restless with the rapidly tightening race in what had been a safe Republican seat for years. And it deals a blow to Democrats who had hoped to frame a victory as a rebuke of President Trump that would give them a shot of momentum ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Meanwhile, Quist, who raised more than $6 million for his upstart bid, said the experience gave him insight into the economic struggles some people face. He campaigned last weekend with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who won the state’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton.
As for the consequences of Gianforte’s bodyslamming of Jacobs, the republican could face additional, more serious charges once prosecutors review the evidence, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert told Reuters.
Gianforte has two weeks to enter a plea to the misdemeanor citation issued by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, according to Lambert, who said he would likely review the case before then to decide whether it should be treated as a felony offense, which would supersede the current charge. “There’s always the possibility that when we get the case and the details, that we might look differently at the charging decision,” Lambert said.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called Gianforte’s apology “a good first step toward redemption” and said she hoped he “continues to work toward righting his wrong.” Gianforte will take the House seat vacated when Trump named Ryan Zinke as secretary of the interior. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence recorded robocalls to voters on Gianforte’s behalf, and Republican groups poured millions into ads criticizing Quist for property tax liens and unpaid debts, which Quist said stemmed from a botched gallbladder surgery.
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