Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte lost three newspaper endorsements over his altercation with a Guardian reporter who asked Gianforte about the controversial GOP health-care bill, and a Montana sheriff cited Gianforte with misdemeanor assault early Thursday morning. But the reaction from the candidate’s would-be Republican colleagues in Congress has been far more muted.
On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers have reacted to the news with a mixture of evasion and defensiveness. That was in stark contrast to the Montana newspapers that un-endorsed Gianforte, one of which, the Billings Gazette, called the incident “shocking, disturbing and without precedent.”
At a Thursday morning press conference, House Republican Leader Paul Ryan said a “physical altercation” with a reporter “should not have happened,” and that Gianforte should apologize. But Ryan would not say that Gianforte should withdraw from the race or be barred from Congress. “If he wins, he has been chosen by the people of Montana, who their congressman’s going to be. I’m going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative,” he said.
Republican Representative Steve Stivers, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement that based on what he knows of Gianforte, “this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes.” He added that the election “is bigger than any one person; it’s about the views of all Montanans.”
Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines said in a statement that he does “not condone violence in any way,” but did not explicitly voice criticism of Gianforte, saying instead that he would leave “questions and answers to local law enforcement.” Later, Daines tweeted that Gianforte “needs to apologize.”
Republican Representative Trent Franks told MSNBC that he “reject[ed] any kind of thing where we use physical violence in a situation like that, it should not have happened,” but not before leveling blame against liberals. “The left has precipitated this tense, confrontational, approach throughout the country in recent months,” he said.
BuzzFeed News reporter Lissandra Villa asked Mark Sanford, a Republican representative from South Carolina, what kind of reception Gianforte would get from Republicans in congress if he won. Sanford joked, "I think people would be careful not to make him mad." Rep. Duncan Hunter of California told Associated Press reporter Mary Clare Jalonick that the assault was “not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.”
Republican Representative Leonard Lance said that he “believe[s] that we should all treat the press with respect, and I try to lead by example”, but evidently he did not find what had happened disqualifying for the Republican candidate. “I of course hope that the Republican is successful today, because I think that his views are the views of the people of Montana.”
Immediately after Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs accused Gianforte of “body slamming” him after he asked the candidate a question about the congressional GOP health-care bill, national Republican groups mostly declined to offer any comment, deferring instead to a statement released by the Gianforte campaign disputing the allegation. That statement has been contradicted by eyewitness accounts from the scene, which said Gianforte attacked Jacobs without any physical aggression from the reporter.