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.
The GOP contender’s assault charge has already led to considerable fallout though. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called on Gianforte to “immediately withdraw” from the race Wednesday evening. The Missoulian and The Billings Gazette rescinded endorsements of Gianforte in response to the incident. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill had a far more muted response, reacting with evasion and defensiveness. Republican Representative Steve Stivers, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement that the incident “was totally out of character,” for Gianforte “but we all make mistakes.”
Gianforte, a wealthy tech executive, faces off on Thursday against Democrat Rob Quist, a folk singer turned politician. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates have pitched themselves as populists. Taking a page out of the Trump playbook, Gianforte has promised to “drain the swamp,” while Quist has said that Congress shouldn’t be a “millionaires’ club.”
Montana isn’t solidly Republican or Democratic. But Trump won the state by double digits, and the congressional seat was formerly held by Ryan Zinke, a Republican who left the House in March to become Trump’s interior secretary. That puts Republicans on the defense.
Both parties have looked to Montana to send a message, with Republicans hoping to throw cold water on the idea that Democrats are poised for a resurgence after losing the White House, and Democrats hoping to prove that voter energy can translate into actual electoral wins in traditionally conservative districts in the Trump era.
The outcome of the Montana election could also complicate Republican plans to push a conservative policy agenda through Congress. Republican leaders cobbled together the votes to pass the American Health Care Act in the House earlier this month, but a GOP health-care bill has yet to come together in the Senate. One Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the AHCA would result in 23 million Americans being uninsured by 2026, compared to the law as is.
If it does, the House may need to vote again on some kind of compromise legislation. Moderate Republicans facing reelection in swing districts may be more reluctant to support the legislation the next time around if they see a Democratic upset in Montana or Georgia, where a runoff election in a traditionally GOP district is set for June.
National Republican groups invested early on and heavily in the race. In total, GOP outside groups and the Republican National Committee have poured more than $5 million into Montana. The National Republican Congressional Committee, a group run by House Republicans, has spent more than $1.8 million on the race, while its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spent only roughly $600,000.
“The reality is we have more to lose in these [special elections] since they’re Republican seats than the Democrats do,” Republican Representative Tom Cole, a former NRCC chair, said in an interview in the Capitol a day before the incident between Gianforte and the reporter took place. “I think there’s probably an effort to walk the extra mile, and leave no stone unturned.”
That investment from GOP outside groups is the clearest indication that Republicans believe an upset is possible.
“The race is competitive, and whenever a race is competitive we’re going to be there to help our members or Republican challengers by providing them with the financial support necessary to win,” Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the NRCC said in a statement prior to the allegations surfacing. The NRCC initially declined to comment on Wednesday night’s incident, directing reporters to the Gianforte campaign statement instead.
Special elections don’t have a consistent track record of predicting what will happen in subsequent midterm elections, and no matter who wins the Montana race, Republicans will retain a majority in the House.
Even so, the party that controls the White House historically loses seats in midterm elections, and if the GOP loses in either Montana or Georgia it could become harder for the party to recruit high-quality candidates. It could also result in vulnerable congressional Republicans opting to retire rather than face reelection if they believe the national environment is hostile to the GOP in the Trump era.
For Democrats, a win Thursday would provide tangible evidence that the party can take back House seats in conservative and rural parts of the country.
Democrats have so far failed to score outright victories in special elections in Kansas and Georgia to fill congressional seats vacated by Republicans tapped to serve in the Trump administration, though Democrats in both races have improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance in each district.
A loss for Democrats would be sure to disappoint voters who have watched the congressional special elections closely in the hopes that they will show signs of a grassroots revival for the party.
If Republicans lose, the party may point to the controversy that engulfed their candidate in the final stretch of the race to argue that the outcome should be viewed as an outlier, rather than a sign of Democratic strength.
While Republican party leaders did not call for Gianforte to exit the race, several Hill GOP lawmakers did say the candidate should apologize for his actions.
On Wednesday, the Gianforte campaign released a defiant statement saying that Jacobs “grabbed Greg’s wrist” and pushed both men “to the ground.” The campaign’s description of events did not match an audio recording released by The Guardian or witness accounts at the scene. A Fox News reporter who was in the room at the time wrote that “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground.” In a statement issued early Thursday morning, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin announced that “The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault.”