A day after he was charged with misdemeanor assault for body-slamming a reporter, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte won the special election on Thursday for Montana’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
According to early returns, Gianforte, a millionaire businessman, defeated Democratic folk singer Rob Quist for the House seat formerly held by Ryan Zinke, who left Congress to serve as President Donald Trump’s interior secretary. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both recorded robo-calls on behalf of Gianforte, and Pence visited the state recently to campaign alongside him.
The race was upended with little more than 24 hours before the polls closed when Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, approached Gianforte before a campaign event on Wednesday afternoon to ask him about the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the American Health Care Act, the GOP’s replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Gianforte had previously said he would weigh in on the bill once the scoring was out, but he instead reacted physically to the question from Jacobs, allegedly pushing him to the ground and breaking his glasses.
Two-thirds of voters had already cast their ballots in early voting before the incident occurred. But some of the remaining voters on Thursday either didn’t care or viewed the pummeling of a journalist positively.
In his victory speech late Thursday night, Gianforte apologized to Jacobs. “I should not have treated that reporter that way. For that, I am sorry,” Gianforte said, adding that he “learned a lesson.” Jacobs told MSNBC earlier Thursday evening that the Gianforte campaign had not reached out to him throughout the day.
“Tonight, Republicans won another hard-fought victory,” Steve Stivers, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. Stivers said the “best way to thank” Trump, Ryan and others for their support would be to “apologize for his actions and I am glad he has done so. Now he needs to resolve his legal issue so that he can start off on the right foot serving his constituents.”
The alleged assault of Jacobs seemed to have the opposite effect as it would in a normal congressional race, emboldening Gianforte’s supporters in the increasingly red state even as Quist outperformed the state’s past Democratic candidates for the House seat. The Gianforte campaign reportedly raised more than $100,000 in the final hours of the contest, after news of the alleged assault broke.
Gianforte’s victory in the wake of his alleged body-slamming of a reporter underscores voters’ increasing acceptance of media-bashing—both verbal and physical. The press, already largely distrusted by the American people, has come under vitriolic attack as part of an attempt to delegitimize journalists. Trump has been accused of stoking anti-media sentiments throughout the 2016 campaign and continuing to do so through his presidency.
Almost immediately after the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office charged Gianforte, the state’s three largest newspapers pulled their endorsements. The Missoulian’s editorial board said Gianforte “should lose the confidence of all Montanans,” while the Billings Gazette said it was simply “at a loss for words.” The Helena Independent Record condemned Gianforte’s “incessant attacks on the free press.” Each newspaper did not, however, go as far as to endorse Quist.
Many GOP leaders remained silent on Thursday about the incident, which was audio recorded. Pence, through a spokesman, declined to comment, while House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Gianforte to apologize, adding: “There’s no call for this under any circumstance.” Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, echoed Ryan.
The alleged assault gave the state’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who narrowly defeated Gianforte in the gubernatorial election last year, another opportunity to knock the candidate.
“It is unsettling on many levels that Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a journalist and then lied, refusing to take responsibility for his actions,” Bullock said in a statement sent to The Daily Beast. “Yesterday’s events serve as another wake up call to all Montanans and Americans that we must restore civility in politics and governing, and demand more from people who hold the public’s trust. One thing is clear: no matter what happens today, the actions of Gianforte do not reflect the values of Montana or its people.”
Gianforte himself remained silent throughout the day on Thursday, even canceling an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Some Democrats in Montana were bullish on the prospect of a Quist win when the news broke of Gianforte’s alleged assault.
“Now that Gianforte has been charged with assault, we are all waiting to see if he decides to do the honorable thing and drop out,” Marian Jensen of the Butte-Silver Bow Democrats Central Committee told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Gianforte, of course, did not—setting back Democrats’ hopes of regaining control of the House in 2018.
Quist overcame a double-digit deficit in the polls in the days leading up to the special election, bolstered by a tour across the state with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. On campaign stops that drew thousands in Missoula, Butte, Billings, and Bozeman, the two men took turns assailing the American Health Care Act—the GOP’s replacement for the Affordable Care Act—and Gianforte’s support for the legislation.
“This is merely a tax break for the super-rich,” Quist said in a Saturday afternoon stop in Butte. “That’s all it is. In the greatest country on earth, people should not have to declare bankruptcy just because they have a health care issue.”
Quist attempted to reach every person possible in the state. He had the name recognition and the outsider appeal of being a political novice. Many of his events featured musical acts including duets with his daughter Halliday.
Quist had galvanized a small-donor army akin to the wave of support for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary—which Sanders won in Montana. By the end of last week, he had raised some $5 million with average contributions of around $25.
Quist seemed to have momentum in the final days, even before Gianforte was charged with assault. At an event in Great Falls on Monday night, Anitra Hall, a local teacher, took the microphone from Quist (who mistakenly referred to the Koch Brothers as “cock brothers”) at one point in the wood-paneled basement of the Celtic Cowboy to inform him that she had knocked on the door of a Republican household earlier in the day and they all said they were voting for Quist.
“I talked to this gentleman, he works at Great Falls transit, and about 20-something years ago, his wife had a heart and double lung transplant,” Hall told Quist in the room of about 75 attendees. “He lost everything and it’s taken 20 years to rebuild. A five-person Republican-voting household voted for you.”
But it would appear that these converts weren’t enough to tip the scales.
Gianforte meanwhile added a flurry of last minute events in the final days after having not held many campaign events, aside from joint appearances with the president’s son Donald Trump Jr.
Gianforte now heads to Capitol Hill, where it’s common—nearly routine—for reporters to approach lawmakers in hallways and outside the House chamber, recorders at the ready.