BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) – Greg Gianforte spent the day of his greatest political victory out of sight, avoiding questions about the assault charge filed against him on the eve of a congressional race that some cast as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency.
In the end, though, the Republican emerged Thursday night as Montana’s new congressman, a comfortable win that may temper Democrats’ hopes for a massive anti-Trump wave to sweep them back into power in Washington in 2018.
Yet Gianforte’s single-digit win paled to Trump’s 20-point romp in Montana in November, a sign that Republicans will have to work hard to defend some of their most secure seats to maintain control of Congress.
The race ultimately turned on the weaknesses of both Gianforte and his opponent, folk singer and Democrat Rob Quist, making it tough to use as a barometer for the nation’s political mood.
Gianforte was cited for misdemeanor assault Wednesday night after witnesses said he slammed to the ground a reporter who was asking him questions about the Republican health care bill. A technology entrepreneur who was widely regarded among even Republican strategists as an imperfect candidate, Gianforte could be heard on an audio tape yelling at the reporter, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian.
By the time sheriff’s deputies arrived, more than half of voters had already cast their ballots in the race due to the state’s mail-in voting law. It was difficult to determine on election night to what extent voters who cast a ballot Thursday were influenced by the altercation.
Gianforte’s campaign issued a statement Wednesday blaming the reporter for the altercation. While polls were open Thursday, the Republican candidate canceled television interviews and stayed out of sight.
But after he was declared the winner, Gianforte apologized for the attack. “When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it. That’s the Montana way,” he said. “Last night, I made a mistake. I took an action I can’t take back and I am not proud of what happened.”
The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Steve Stivers, issued a statement hailing Gianforte’s win, as well as his apology. “Now he needs to resolve his legal issue so that he can start off on the right foot serving his constituents,” Stivers said.
Gianforte must appear in court by June 7 on the misdemeanor charge, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Stivers’ Democratic counterpart, Rep. Ben Lujan of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, contended in a statement that the election was “tainted” by the assault. “There’s no question in my mind that Gianforte should not be sworn into office,” Lujan said. “Regardless of what happens next, we will be competing hard for this seat in 2018.”
The assault allegation didn’t seem to faze voters. 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,” Scott said.
Gianforte had unsuccessfully challenged the state’s Democratic governor in November, losing that race even as Trump won the state easily. Gianforte had held his party’s nominee at an arm’s length but during the special election, he embraced the president, welcoming Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. for campaign visits and using the president’s “Drain the swamp” catchphrase.
His opponent, Quist, was previously best known as the singer in the Mission Mountain Wood Band. He surprised Democrats by nabbing his party’s nomination at its convention in March. A supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Quist had never run for office before. Democrats were initially hopeful that he’d appeal to Montana’s right-leaning voters who have a history of electing Democratic mavericks.
But Republicans rapidly mounted a wilting attack on the airwaves over Quist’s financial troubles, including a history of unpaid taxes and liens. They bashed him as a tool of liberal Democrats like House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Quist eventually raised more than $6 million but struggled to come back from the early onslaught of negative publicity and advertising. He attacked Gianforte as a transplant from New Jersey — Gianforte moved to the state in the 1990s — which was a potent issue during the gubernatorial race but not enough to get Quist across the finish line.
Gianforte’s support came from people like Bozeman advertising executive Cailley Tonn, who voted early for Gianforte. After the alleged assault, she said she wouldn’t have changed her vote. “I was disappointed to see he flew off the handle like that,” she said.
But in the end, she added, she wanted to back the Republican party’s platform.
Democrats made a late investment in the race. Hours after Gianforte’s scuffle with the reporter, Democrats were blasting Facebook ads at Montana Democrats they thought might otherwise sit out election day. But it was too late to do any more advertising.