Montana GOP Candidate’s Assault Charge Hangs Over Tight Special Election

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Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte talks with supporters during a campaign meet and greet at Lions Park on Tuesday in Great Falls, Montana. On Wednesday, Gianforte was charged with assaulting a reporter.

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Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte talks with supporters during a campaign meet and greet at Lions Park on Tuesday in Great Falls, Montana. On Wednesday, Gianforte was charged with assaulting a reporter.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Montana voters are at the polls as the aftermath of an altercation between the Republican congressional candidate and a reporter unfolds.

Nominee Greg Gianforte was charged Wednesday evening with misdemeanor assault against Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian. The incident has drawn extra attention to the race to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, considered a bellwether, in its final hours.

It’s unclear how much the turn of events will impact the outcome of the contest between Gianforte and Democratic nominee Rob Quist, especially after many voters had cast their ballots early. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said Gianforte should apologize, while other Republican lawmakers have called the incident “out of character.”

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Health care has been a key topic in the race — and was in fact the subject of Jacobs’ question when his exchange with Gianforte turned violence. According to audio provided by Jacobs, he asks Gianforte for his reaction to the Congressional Budget Office’s report on the American Health Care Act. Gianforte had said previously he didn’t want to weigh in on the Republican health care bill until he saw the CBO score.

But Gianforte brushed Jacobs off and then suddenly “body-slammed” him onto the ground, breaking his glasses, Jacobs says. According to three Fox News reporters who were in the room preparing for an interview with the GOP nominee, Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground … then began punching the man as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’ “

The tape backs up that account, but Gianforte’s campaign claimed it was Jacobs who was the aggressor, pushing a tape recorder in Gianforte’s face and then “grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.”

The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office announced late Wednesday it was charging Gianforte with misdemeanor assault, which carries a possible maximum fine of $500 or up to six months in jail if convicted. Gianforte has been ordered to appear in court by June 7.

At a news conference on Thursday, Sheriff Brian Gootkin said Gianforte cooperated by giving an initial statement at the scene. Reporters asked why Gianforte had not been detained, and the sheriff said his deputies “got busy with the witnesses and the victim,” and Gianforte left. He was not in custody or under arrest at the time. The sheriff says the department has been contacted by attorneys on the candidate’s behalf, and law enforcement has not had a followup interview with him.

Gootkin also disclosed that he had contributed to Gianforte’s campaign, but said it “has nothing to do” with the investigation or his role as sheriff. He would not answer questions about why he contributed or whether he regularly donates to campaigns, saying that “doesn’t have anything to do with the incident.”

House Speaker Ryan said at his weekly press conference that Gianforte should apologize.

“I do not think this is acceptable behavior, but the choice will be made by the people of Montana,” Ryan said Thursday.

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A statement from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers, who oversees the House GOP’s campaign arm, didn’t go as far as Ryan.

“From what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes. We need to let the facts surrounding this incident unfold,” the Ohio congressman said. “Today’s special election is bigger than any one person; it’s about the views of all Montanans. They deserve to have their voices heard in Washington.”

Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines, who used to work for Gianforte’s software company, told NBC News’s Peter Alexander, “I’ve known Greg for 20 years. I was very surprised last night. I don’t condone violence of any kind. I’ve got confidence in my local law enforcement back home to investigate the matter.”

“I think Greg should apologize,” Daines continued. “That’s warranted. And we’ll let the people of Montana decide what happens tonight.”

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who’s up for re-election in 2018 in what’s expected to be a highly competitive race, said in a statement that the incident was now “in the hands of law enforcement. But part of the job representing the people of Montana is answering basic questions on important topics, topics such as how a dangerous healthcare plan could impact the very people you are trying to represent. It’s part of the job.”

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Gianforte, a wealthy software executive, lost to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock last year by about 4 points, even as President Trump rolled to a 20 point win in the state.

And while Gianforte was hesitant to embrace then-candidate Trump during that contest, he’s been closely embracing the president this go-around, co-opting his familiar “drain the swamp” phrase and pledging to go to Washington to work with the president. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has hit the trail twice for Gianforte, and Vice President Pence also made a recent campaign stop on his behalf.

Quist, a Stetson-wearing folk singer who’s well known across the state for his music, has tried to ride the rising opposition to Trump to an upset. He hasn’t made the president his central campaign pitch, and hasn’t tried to capitalize on the scandals engulfing his administration in recent days, but has made his opposition to the health care bill a key point in the campaign’s final stretch.

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Republicans have hammered Quist with almost $5 million in ads, hitting him for property tax liens and unpaid debts. But Quist has shot back that his financial struggles stemmed from a botched gallbladder surgery over two decades ago, giving him a way to sympathize with people also struggling to afford health insurance and pay their medical bills.

Private GOP polls showed a close race earlier this week, with Gianforte believed to have a slim single-digit lead. But with the heavy volume of absentee ballots already returned, it’s unclear how — or if — the recent charges against Gianforte will alter an already close race. And, given conservative opposition to the media, Gianforte’s actions might actually win him some supporters, too.

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