Republican Greg Gianforte won Montana’s special House election Thursday night, beating Democrat Rob Quist a day after Gianforte was charged with assault for allegedly attacking a reporter covering his campaign.
The incident threatened to sink a red-state campaign that was already worrying Republicans nationally, despite President Donald Trump’s 20-point win in Montana just last year. But Gianforte’s win preserved the GOP’s 24-seat edge in the House of Representatives, frustrating Democratic activists who poured money into Quist’s campaign and demanded more help from party groups that saw the uphill, red-state race as unwinnable.
Gianforte, a technology executive, had 51 percent of the vote when The Associated Press called the race at about 10:30 p.m. Mountain Time. Quist, a folk singer and first-time candidate, had 44 percent of the vote. A Libertarian candidate, Mark Wicks, had 6 percent.
The hotly contested special election to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Congress took a violent turn Wednesday night when Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, asked about Gianforte’s reaction to the Congressional Budget Office score of the House Republican health care plan. Jacobs said Gianforte “body-slammed” him and broke his glasses, an account which was corroborated by audio of the incident and eyewitness accounts from a Fox News reporting team in the room. The accounts directly contradicted Gianforte’s campaign, whose spokesman, Shane Scanlon, called Jacobs’ behavior “aggressive.”
But over a quarter-million voters cast their ballots before the incident, limiting its impact on the results of the special election.
Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Montana Sen. Steve Daines called on Gianforte to apologize Thursday, which Gianforte did in a victory speech late Thursday night before supporters in Bozeman, Mont.
“When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it. That’s the Montana way," Gianforte said. "Last night I made a mistake and I took an action that I can’t take back. I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did and for that I am sorry."
"I should not have treated that reporter that way and for that I am sorry Mr. Ben Jacobs," he added. Gianforte, however, did not address his campaign’s contradictory statement released last night.
Republicans acknowledged that Gianforte has work to do to reset his image.
One Republican survey showed the news of the incident reached most voters in Montana. Ninety-three percent of likely Election Day voters in the state told Remingtion Research Group in an automated poll that they had heard about the altercation between Gianforte and Jacobs. Nine percent of those Election Day voters said they flipped their votes to Quist after hearing about the story.
"Gianforte’s brand for the rest of his political career is going to be ‘the body slammer,’" said Titus Bond, the pollster. "Every single room he walks into in D.C., that’ll be the chatter, that’s what they’ll say."
“He won’t be the only hot-headed lunatic in the House, but doesn’t mean it’s an easy situation for Republicans to deal with,” said one national Republican strategist. “The Speaker was smart to say he should apologize, and most smart people agree he needs to make this right fast.”
Quist told supporters that he conceded to Gianforte but wants them to stay involved in politics.
"I know Montanans will hold Mr. Gianforte accountable," Quist said. "Do not be discouraged. Be determined."
Gianforte always led the race, but even before the incident, private polling showed Gianforte’s lead slipping from double-digits to single-digits in Montana. Even then, Democratic groups did not match the millions in outside spending poured in by the GOP, much to the frustration of Democratic activists, including a number of backers of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who endorsed Quist.
DCCC chairman Ben Ray Lujan said in a statement that Democrats intend to "compete hard for this seat" in 2018. “Unfortunately, the alleged violent assault of an innocent reporter and subsequent criminal charges have tainted this election at the very end and further clarified that Greg Gianforte is unfit to represent Montana," Lujan continued. "There’s no question in my mind that Gianforte should not be sworn into office."
National Republicans took the opportunity to swipe at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, after linking Quist to her in TV ads painting him as too liberal for Montana.
"Greg Gianforte will be the next congressman from Montana and Nancy Pelosi and liberals in Washington were rejected again," NRCC chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement.
Some Republicans had privately been criticizing Gianforte for not putting away the race more easily before the explosive end of the campaign. Democrats effectively tagged Gianforte as a millionaire from New Jersey who was trying to buy the election. All through last year’s gubernatorial race, Democrats also attacked Gianforte over reports that he sued to block access to a stream in front of his ranch, kicking up a public lands dispute that “probably followed him into this House race,” said Jeff Essman, the chairman of the Montana Republican Party.
Gianforte’s episode with the reporter followed three weeks of intense pressure and questions on health care, after Gianforte was taped praising the GOP health care bill in a conversation with lobbyists while publicly refusing to commit to the plan. As Quist’s campaign attacked Gianforte over his comments and provisions in the bill, private surveys showed Gianforte’s lead slipping from double-digits to a slim, single-digit gap.
Quist’s campaign win was powered by Democrats’ online grassroots, which helped him raise more than $6 million — including $1 million in the final week of the race. But those activists grew frustrated over the course of the race as their investment was not matched by Democratic groups. Republicans spent more than $7 million on TV ads to about $3 million from Democrats.
Meanwhile, Republicans brought big names to the state, with Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. holding rallies with Gianforte in the final weeks of the race to stir up GOP voter enthusiasm.