Wealthy Republican businessman Greg Gianforte won Montana’s House special election Thursday night, handily defeating Democrat Rob Quist — despite being charged with assaulting a reporter the day before.
The special election for the seat vacated by now-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke drew attention and millions of dollars from both parties for the past several weeks. But the incident Wednesday that resulted in Gianforte allegedly assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, breaking his glasses, and sending him to the hospital instantly changed the tone of the entire election.
Three of Montana’s biggest newspapers rescinded their pro-Gianforte endorsements. The DCCC, House Democrats’ campaign arm, released an ominous digital ad with Gianforte’s face in black-and-white and the tagline, “Charged with a crime. No business being in Congress.” House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Gianforte to apologize, saying, “I do not think this is acceptable behavior.” (VICE News’ Josh Tyrangiel, executive vice president of content, news, also released a statement condemning the alleged assault.) And despite a Wednesday statement where Gianforte’s campaign spokesperson blamed “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist” for the incident, Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault, which carries a fine of up to $500, six months in jail, or both.
A Fox News team of reporters also later backed up Jacobs’ account of what happened, but the alleged attack appeared to have little effect on the election, where more than half of the registered Montana voters were estimated to have already returned their ballots by the time news of the incident broke. The Montana Secretary of State, asked if any Montanans had sought to change their vote in the wake of the “body-slamming,” told VICE News that only reporters had bothered to call and find out if this was even possible.
Still, the Montana race — like the special elections in deep-red Kansas and Georgia districts earlier this year, which also resulted in Democratic losses — proved surprisingly competitive for a seat held exclusively by Republicans for nearly two decades. Democrats had sought to capitalize on the unpopularity of President Donald Trump and the American Health Care Act to propel Quist, a banjo-playing folksinger and Montana native known throughout the state, to victory. Quist raised more than $6 million to fund his campaign, include $1 million in the last week of the campaign alone. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, even flew in to campaign for Quist last weekend.
National Republicans, however, proved equally dedicated to keeping the seat. President Donald Trump, who won Montana by more than 20 points last November, recorded robo-calls for Gianforte, as did Vice President Mike Pence. Both Pence and presidential son Eric Trump also hopped onstage at Gianforte’s campaign events. And before Gianforte’s alleged assault, this strategy appeared to be working: Three Gravis-conducted polls showed Gianforte leading comfortably, according to Real Clear Politics. And that lead held strong Thursday night — he finished about 7 points ahead of Quist.