MISSOULA, Mont. — As Montanans headed to the polls to elect their lone U.S. House member, Republican leaders said that GOP candidate Greg Gianforte’s behavior toward a reporter on Wednesday night was unacceptable but should not disqualify him for office.
In-person voting began across the state less than 24 hours after Gianforte allegedly “body-slammed” Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who was trying to ask him a question about the House Republican health-care plan. Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault in the incident.
The scuffle, caught on tape by the reporter and witnessed by a Fox News reporting team, threw the race to replace former congressman Ryan Zinke into sudden turmoil. As three major newspapers pulled their endorsements of the technology entrepreneur and some early voters sought in vain to change their ballots, GOP leaders urged Gianforte to apologize in an attempt to calm the waters.
“There is no time where a physical altercation should occur,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said at his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill. “It should not have happened. Should the gentleman apologize? Yeah, I think he should apologize.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), one of Gianforte’s closest allies in Montana politics, called his actions “unacceptable” and agreed he should apologize. “I do not condone violence in any way,” Daines said in a statement and a television interview.
Republicans fought off Democrats’ calls for Gianforte to withdraw from the race.
“Don’t condone it, but I think knowing Greg for 20 years, and in the context of that relationship, he’ll do a good job,” Daines said in an interview with NBC.
Asked twice whether Republicans would let Gianforte join their House conference, Ryan said they would. “I’m going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative,” he said.
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the candidate’s behavior was “totally out of character” for Gianforte but said that “we all make mistakes.”
“We need to let the facts surrounding this incident unfold,” Stivers said in a statement. “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.”
In Montana, where more than 200,000 of the 700,000 eligible voters have cast early absentee ballots, it was unclear how Gianforte’s blowup would affect the race.
A spokeswoman for the Montana secretary of state said it was not possible for early voters to recast their ballots in light of Gianforte’s actions. The office received a dozen phone calls from early voters on Thursday morning wondering if they could revote, and reports suggested that local election officials had received a wave of similar calls.
“In Montana, we vote only once,” Christi Jacobsen, chief of staff to Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, wrote in an email. “Once you voted you can’t change your vote.”
The polls will close at 10 p.m. Eastern time.
Wednesday’s incident took place after nearly four weeks of voting in a special election to replace Zinke, who became President Trump’s interior secretary in March. Gianforte’s opponent, Democrat Rob Quist, told reporters Thursday that the scuffle was a “matter for law enforcement” and declined to comment further.
National Democrats quickly pounced on the controversy. At a Thursday afternoon news conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Gianforte a “wannabe Trump.”
“That’s his model. Donald Trump’s his model,” Pelosi said. “How do you explain that to children? You ask a question and I’ll strangle you? I mean, really.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) suggested Gianforte had shirked an essential duty to voters by refusing to answer Jacobs’s question. “Part of the job representing the people of Montana is answering basic questions on important topics, topics such as how a dangerous health-care plan could impact the very people you are trying to represent. It’s part of the job,” the senator said.
Gianforte has not apologized for the incident, which upended the race considered by many to be a bellwether for Republicans’ political chances in the era of Trump.
Gallatin County police announced the charges late Wednesday after the Guardian published an audio recording of the incident made by Jacobs, the reporter.
In the recording, Jacobs can be heard asking Gianforte to respond to the newly released Congressional Budget Office score of House Republicans’ American Health Care Act, a bill Gianforte has said he was glad to see the House approve.
After Gianforte tells Jacobs to direct the question to his spokesman, Shane Scanlon, there is the sound of an altercation and Gianforte begins to shout.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Gianforte says. “The last guy that came in here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here! Get the hell out of here! The last guy did the same thing. Are you with the Guardian?”
“Yes, and you just broke my glasses,” Jacobs says.
“The last guy did the same damn thing,” Gianforte says.
“You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses,” Jacobs says.
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte says.
After that, Jacobs can be heard on the tape saying he will be contacting the police.
Gianforte left without appearing at the rally, and Scanlon released a campaign statement calling Jacobs a “liberal reporter” who “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face.”
“Greg then attempted to grab the phone,” Scanlon said. “Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.”
Scanlon’s description was challenged by a Fox News Channel reporter who witnessed the scuffle and described Gianforte throwing Jacobs to the ground, grabbing his neck, striking him and exclaiming, “I’m sick and tired of this!”
“Nothing in the campaign statement is accurate except my name and my employer,” Jacobs told The Washington Post.
By dawn on Election Day, the assault charge was the biggest political story in Montana, and three of the state’s largest newspapers had pulled their endorsements, which the candidate had been touting in TV ads.
The Billings Gazette, which serves Montana’s largest city, told readers that it had made a “poor choice” by ignoring “questionable interactions” the candidate has had with reporters in the past.
The Helena Independent Record, which serves the state’s capital city, wrote that the concepts of democracy and press freedom were “under attack” by Gianforte.
And the Missoulian, which had taken heat from readers for backing Gianforte, pulled its support and suggested that the candidate, who narrowly lost a race for governor last year, should bow out of public life.
The American Health Care Act — the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act — had become the dominant issue in the campaign. In the closing days of the race, Quist focused his events and TV ads on his opposition to the Republican bill and brought in Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to help promote his position on U.S. health care: universal coverage.
Gianforte, meanwhile, had struggled to explain his position. In early May, reporters for The Post and the New York Times received a tape of Gianforte telling donors that he was glad that the AHCA had passed the House. But in public, he said he still had questions about the bill.
In a commercial that was still running on Election Day, Gianforte continued to obfuscate on the question of whether he could support the measure. And although he said that he would have a better idea of his vote when the CBO score arrived, Gianforte released no statement Tuesday.
“I will not vote for a repeal-and-replace unless it protects people with preexisting conditions, brings premiums down and protects rural access,” Gianforte says in the ad.
As word spread of the alleged assault in Bozeman, some supporters who had been knocking on doors for Quist began playing voters the audio clip. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has invested more than $500,000 in the race, called for Gianforte to quit the race and released a last-minute radio ad featuring Jacobs’s audio of the incident.
In other races, candidates have been badly damaged for appearing to blow up at reporters or people recording them. In 2006, Mike Hatch, the Democratic nominee for governor of Minnesota, lost a close race after accusing a reporter who asked tough questions of being “a Republican whore.” In 2010, then-Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) lost what had been a safe seat after manhandling a Republican tracker who asked whether he supported “the Obama agenda.”
But in interviews at Quist’s final rally, at a Missoula microbrewery, voters were skeptical that the attack could change the race. Gianforte entered the contest with high negative ratings and an image as a hard-charging bully who had joked about outnumbering a reporter at a town hall meeting and sued to keep people from fishing on public land near his home. He had nearly won the governor’s mansion anyway and had deflected attention from his low approval numbers with ads attacking Quist over unpaid taxes.
“Greg thinks he’s Donald Trump,” said Brent Morrow, 60. “He thinks he could shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.”
Fred Barbash contributed to this report.