Updated at 10 p.m. ET
Polls have closed in the closely-watched Montana special election. The race was upended in the final hours following an altercation between the Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte and a reporter, adding even more uncertainty to an unusually tight contest.
Gianforte was charged Wednesday evening with misdemeanor assault against Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian. The incident has drawn extra attention to the race to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, considered a bellwether, in its final hours.
It’s unclear how much the turn of events will impact the outcome of the contest between Gianforte and Democratic nominee Rob Quist, especially because many voters had cast their ballots early. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said Gianforte should apologize, while other Republican lawmakers have called the incident “out of character.”
Private GOP polls showed a close race earlier this week, with Gianforte projected to have a slim, single-digit lead.
Some voters told Montana Public Radio’s Corin Cates-Carney and Nicky Ouellet that they were aghast at the events of the past 24 hours.
“He assaulted a reporter. I mean, would you want to vote for that? Who would wanna vote for that?” asked Jenny Bevill, a teacher from Whitefish.
But several Republican voters were willing to withhold judgment or were flat-out skeptical of what reportedly unfolded.
“The body-slamming? Ah, yeah, it just seems a little too good to be true to me,” said Chandler Ortman, who works in the restaurant industry in Bozeman and voted for Gianforte. “I guess I’m just gonna say he’s innocent until proven guilty.”
James Baker, a lobbyist in Bozeman who also voted for Gianforte, said, “Sometimes I think a lot of reporters get aggressive, and after the heat of a long campaign people can lose tempers.”
Debbie Warriner of Kalispell called the reports “a crock of baloney.”
“I mean, that story — it’s possible it’s not even true,” she told Montana Public Radio.
Health care has been a key topic in the race — and was, in fact, the subject of Jacobs’ question when his exchange with Gianforte turned violent. According to audio provided by Jacobs, he asked Gianforte for his reaction to the Congressional Budget Office’s report on the American Health Care Act. Gianforte had said previously he didn’t want to weigh in on the Republican health care bill until he saw the CBO score.
But Gianforte brushed Jacobs off and then suddenly “body-slammed” him onto the ground, breaking his glasses, Jacobs says. According to three Fox News reporters who were in the room preparing for an interview with the GOP nominee, Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground … then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’ ”
The audiotape taken by Jacobs backs up that account, but Gianforte’s campaign claimed it was Jacobs who was the aggressor, saying he pushed a tape recorder in Gianforte’s face and then “grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.”
The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office announced late Wednesday that it was charging Gianforte with misdemeanor assault, which carries a possible maximum fine of $500 or up to six months in jail if convicted. Gianforte has been ordered to appear in court by June 7.
At a news conference on Thursday, Sheriff Brian Gootkin said Gianforte cooperated by giving an initial statement at the scene. Reporters asked why Gianforte had not been detained, and the sheriff said his deputies “got busy with the witnesses and the victim,” and Gianforte left. The candidate was not in custody or under arrest at the time. The sheriff says that the department has been contacted by attorneys on the candidate’s behalf but that law enforcement has not had a follow-up interview with him.
Gootkin also disclosed that he had contributed to Gianforte’s campaign but said it “has nothing to do” with the investigation or his role as sheriff. He would not answer questions about why he contributed or whether he regularly donates to campaigns, saying that “doesn’t have anything to do with the incident.”
House Speaker Ryan said at his weekly press conference that Gianforte should apologize.
“I do not think this is acceptable behavior, but the choice will be made by the people of Montana,” Ryan said Thursday.
A statement from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers, who oversees the House GOP’s campaign arm, didn’t go as far as Ryan’s did.
“From what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes. We need to let the facts surrounding this incident unfold,” the Ohio congressman said. “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.”
Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines, who used to work for Gianforte’s software company, told NBC News’ Peter Alexander, “I’ve known Greg for 20 years. I was very surprised last night. I don’t condone violence of any kind. I’ve got confidence in my local law enforcement back home to investigate the matter.”
“I think Greg should apologize,” Daines continued. “That’s warranted. And we’ll let the people of Montana decide what happens tonight.”
Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who is up for re-election in 2018 in what’s expected to be a highly competitive race, said in a statement that the incident was now “in the hands of law enforcement. But 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.”
Gianforte, a wealthy software executive, lost to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock last year by about 4 points, even as President Trump rolled to a 20-point win in the state.
And while Gianforte was hesitant to embrace then-candidate Trump during that contest, he has been closely embracing the president this go-round, co-opting his familiar “drain the swamp” phrase and pledging to go to Washington to work with the president. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. has hit the trail twice for Gianforte, and Vice President Pence also made a recent campaign stop on his behalf.
Quist, a Stetson-wearing folk singer who is well-known across the state for his music, has tried to ride the rising opposition to Trump to an upset. He hasn’t made the president his central campaign pitch and hasn’t tried to capitalize on the scandals engulfing his administration in recent days but has made his opposition to the health care bill a key point in the campaign’s final stretch.
Republicans have hammered Quist with almost $5 million in ads, hitting him for property tax liens and unpaid debts. But Quist has shot back that his financial struggles stemmed from a botched gallbladder surgery over two decades ago, giving him a way to sympathize with people also struggling to afford health insurance and pay their medical bills.
Montana Public Radio’s Corin Cates-Carney and Nicky Ouellet and NPR’s Don Gonyea contributed to this report.