Updated on May 25, 2017 at 3:00 p.m. EST
The closely watched Montana special election on Thursday has been highly anticipated as a potential referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency and a test of whether Democrats can win back congressional seats in conservative and rural parts of the country.
But the race was thrown into turmoil Wednesday evening into early Thursday morning, when a Montana sheriff’s office cited GOP candidate Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault, after journalist Ben Jacobs accused Gianforte of “body slamming” him after he asked the Montana Republican about the recently passed GOP health-care bill. The Gianforte campaign disputed the reporters’ account, but it was corroborated by eyewitnesses at the scene of the incident.
The Sheriff’s Office in Gallatin County, which opened up an investigation into the allegations on Wednesday, announced early Thursday morning that it had found “probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault” and that Gianforte must appear in Gallatin County Justice Court prior to June 7, 2017.
Even so, Gianforte is still likely to prevail in the race for Montana’s lone House seat. Despite the gravity of the situation, and the social-media uproar it caused, the incident may have only limited impact on the race. The GOP contender had been considered the favorite to win prior to the allegations he now faces. And election analysts estimate that roughly two-thirds of early votes had already been cast before he faced an assault charge. As a result, “whatever effect this may have may be somewhat muted,” Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said in an e-mail.