(CN) – Republican Greg Gianforte won Thursday’s special election for its one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives despite being charged with assaulting a reporter this week.
Greg Gianforte, a wealthy businessman from New Jersey, got 50.4 percent of the votes to Democrat Rob Quist’s 43.9 percent, with 98 percent of the ballots counted. Libertarian Mark Wicks got 5.7 percent. The House seat was left vacant when Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican, resigned in March to become President Donald Trump’s secretary of the Interior.
Ginaforte won despite the bizarre late Wednesday night fracas at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters in Bozeman. Ben Jacobs, a reporter for British news outlet The Guardian, approached Gianforte and asked him for his opinion on Trump’s budget that was released Wednesday and how it would affect health care for Americans.
According to Jacobs’ recording of the interview, which was posted on The Guardian’s website, Gianforte can be heard yelling at Jacobs followed by crashing sounds. Jacobs can be heard saying his glasses were broken and he wanted to call the police.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys,” a voice identified as Gianforte’s says on the recording. “The last guy who came in here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here.”
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin provided a written statement about six hours after the attack on Jacobs. Gianforte could face a maximum $500 fine or 6 months in jail if convicted. The sheriff’s statement said the reporter’s injuries did not meet the legal definition of felony assault.
Gianforte was in a private office preparing for an interview with Fox News when Jacobs came in without permission, campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon told the Associated Press.
Scanlon said Jacobs provoked the incident, but his account of the incident differed from that of the news reporters on the scene and Jacobs’ audio recording.
Gianforte kept a low profile Thursday. But at a press conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Gianforte should apologize.
“There is no time a physical altercation should occur with the press,” Ryan said. “That’s wrong and should not have happened. I think he should apologize. I know he has his own version and I know he has more to say, but there’s no call for this under any circumstance.
“The people of Montana are going to decide today who they will send to Congress. I’m going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative.”
And on Thursday, Montanans began deciding. Kenny Ketner voted earlier this week for Quist, and said it was mainly a vote against Trump.
“I think it is important to resist the Trump agenda,” Ketner said. “Health care is probably my number one concern; what the Republican Congress wants to do will leave millions of people uninsured. Plus, Trump’s budget this week shows cuts to all sorts of national spending, from agriculture subsidies to education.”
Katie Carroll, a first-time voter who turned 18 in November 2016, said Wednesday’s assault convinced her and her friends about the importance of voting, and they chose Quist.
“I don’t like his aggressive nature and he didn’t handle pressure very well,” she said. “That’s not a good trait for a politician.”
Even long-time Republican Gary Stoddard said he is supporting Quist.
“I don’t particularly care for Mr. Gianforte,” Stoddard said. “His personality, his out-of-state money – I’m proud of him for creating a good business and good jobs in Montana, but I don’t think he’s right for Montana. Rob Quist seems like an ordinary guy; he sounds like one of us.”
Divisions in the Montana electorate were clear at one rural Montana polling place Thursday, where mothers with babies in strollers cast their votes alongside ranchers and loggers at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell, Montana, a conservative stronghold with a burgeoning liberal population.
Alanna Ober is a nurse at the largest employer in the area, Kalispell Regional Medical Center. Up until about 15 years ago, her political leanings ran Republican. But as she grew more concerned about environmental protections and corporate accountability, she has become a moderate Democrat. She cast her vote Thursday for Quist, saying he has the kind of life experience that Montanans can relate to.
Financial difficulties have plagued Quist, including tax liens and unpaid bills. Quist addressed the difficulties during his campaign, saying they were related to medical issues from a botched gallbladder surgery.
“I don’t think he’s that different from many, many Americans, and for that matter, many Montanans,” Ober said outside the Kalispell polling place, where horses grazed nearby. “Quist may have issues, but Gianforte has the means to cover his up.”
Another voter who wished to remain anonymous said Wednesday’s alleged assault at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters didn’t change his mind.
“I’d hate to have someone go through my closet,” the man said.
“Both people are stellar people,” the man, who works for a local city government, added. “I have respect for people who can generate jobs. I’m not a champion that the government has to be a solution for everybody. I want someone in there who has experience, who can create and move forward.”
Ober said the election is proof of a state divided. She grew up in Hungry Horse, a tiny Montana town next to Glacier National Park, where people of all social and economic statuses lived peacefully next to each other.
“We all melded together,” she said. “We were all there together, because we all had the same level of importance.”
Decades of economic prosperity have led Americans to be more self-focused, Ober said.
“We went through a period of not needing each other. Friendship was sustaining. Now it seems it’s just kind of nice to have,” she said. “Every day I think we could do better. It makes me sad.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who fended off Gianforte’s run for that seat this past November, said the alleged altercation Wednesday is “another wakeup call to all Montanans and Americans that we must restore civility in politics and governing.”
Republicans have held the Montana’s sole congressional seat for two decades. Three of Montana’s biggest newspapers pulled their endorsements of Gianforte, while leaders of both major parties called on Gianforte to apologize.
Washington-based think tank Issue One said Thursday that about $17 million has been spent on the race between Gianforte and Quist – nearly $7 million of that by outside groups. The group said Quist has raised $2 million more than Gianforte, though the National Republican Congressional Committee has outspent its Democratic counterpart by 5 to 1.
Many people in Montana voted absentee, including 18,000 in Lewis and Clark County. In Helena, Election Supervisor Audrey McCue said they fielded quite a few calls Thursday asking if they could change their votes. That’s not an option, however.
As it became apparent Gianforte would eke out a victory, he issued the following statement just before midnight.
“Last night I learned a lesson. When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it. That’s the Montana way,” he said. “Last night I did make a mistake. I took an action that I cannot take back. I am not proud of what happened.I should not have responded the way that I did. And for that I am sorry.
I should not have treated the reporter that way. I am sorry Mr. Ben Jacobs… I want to apologize to the FOX News team, and I am sorry to each of you for my actions. That is not the person I am or the leader I will be for Montana.
“Rest assured – our work is just beginning – but it does begin with me taking responsibility for my own actions. You deserve a congressman who stays out of the limelight and just gets the job done.”