BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) – A last-minute melee that led to an assault charge against a congressional candidate jolted many people in the nation who were viewing the election Thursday as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s young administration.
Now, it’s become a test of whether a candidate’s behavior is more important than partisan leanings.
Voters were deciding Thursday whether to send Republican candidate Greg Gianforte to Congress after he was charged with assaulting a reporter a day earlier.
Shaun Scott, a computer science professor at Carroll College in Helena, voted for Gianforte despite the assault charge, saying it was barely a factor in his decision.
“If you have somebody sticking a phone in your face, a mic in your face, over and over, and you don’t know how to deal with the situation, you haven’t really done that, you haven’t dealt with that, I can see where it can … make you a little angry,” he said.
Like a third of eligible voters in Montana, advertising executive Cailley Tonn of Bozeman had already mailed in her absentee ballot when the melee occurred at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters.
Still, she said, the incident would not have changed her vote for Gianforte.
“I was disappointed to see he flew off the handle like that,” she said.
But in the end, she added, her choice was about affirming the Republican platform.
Witnesses say Gianforte, a wealthy technology executive, grabbed Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, by the neck on Wednesday and threw him to the ground.
The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office cited him for misdemeanor assault and he has until June 7 to appear in court.
Gianforte was keeping a low profile Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
He canceled television interviews and did not appear in public even as his supporters readied his victory party.
His campaign has blamed Jacobs, contending he aggressively shoved his phone in the candidate’s face and grabbed Gianforte’s wrist as the Republican tried to move it away. A Fox News crew that witnessed the incident said that didn’t happen
Montana is an unorthodox state. It backed Donald Trump by 20 percentage points over Hillary Clinton but also re-elected its Democratic governor, who defeated Gianforte in November by 5 percentage points.
Voters lean Republican and prefer iconoclasts along with limited government and their right to bear arms.
Gianforte hit upon these themes in the race to replace Montana’s previous congressman, Ryan Zinke, who became Trump’s Interior secretary in March.
The Republican candidate focused on protecting the 2nd Amendment and tried to tie Rob Quist, a first-time candidate, to liberal Democrats such as House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
But the theme of the election shifted Wednesday night when Jacobs walked into Gianforte’s office as he was preparing for an interview with Fox News.
Jacobs began asking the candidate about the health care bill passed by the House when the crew and Jacobs say Gianforte slammed him to the floor, yelling “Get out of here!”
If convicted, Gianforte could face up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said Gianforte was charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony because no weapon was used and Jacobs was not seriously injured. The county prosecutor is reviewing the case.
Three of Montana’s biggest newspapers pulled their endorsements of Gianforte – without endorsing his opponent – while leaders of both major parties called on him to apologize.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said what occurred was “wrong and should not happen.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called Gianforte “a wannabe Trump.”
Republican Tina Stark of Townsend said she doesn’t know Gianforte or whether has a temper.
“But I can understand how somebody could push somebody’s buttons,” she said. “I don’t advocate violence, but when you’re told to back off, you need to back off.”
Some voters didn’t see the attack altering the dynamics of the contest, which has dominated state politics for weeks.
“I don’t think it probably changed very many minds or votes today, unfortunately,” said Patrick Paradis of Helena, who voted for Quist. “Politics are pretty entrenched right now in terms of who people are going to follow and who people are going to vote for.”
Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda in Bozeman, Amy Hanson in Helena and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.