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Updated May 25 at 1 p.m. ET
The Montana special congressional race was roiled on the eve of Thursday's vote after GOP nominee Greg Gianforte allegedly "body slammed" a reporter and was subsequently cited by local authorities.
The Gallatin County Sheriff's Office announced it was charging Gianforte with misdemeanor assault after "multiple interviews and an investigation." The candidate was given a citation, the office said, and would appear in county court sometime before June 7.
The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee called the incident "out of character" for Gianforte. Steve Stivers' statement added, "We all make mistakes" and the election is "bigger than any one person."
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in his weekly news conference, "There's never a call for physical altercations. ... So that is wrong and it should not have happened."
He added that if Gianforte wins, "he has been chosen ... by the people of Montana who their congressman is going to be. I'm going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative."
According to audio posted by Ben Jacobs, a political reporter with The Guardian, he was attempting to ask Gianforte a question, ahead of a campaign event in Bozeman, about the Congressional Budget Office's scoring of the Republican health care bill, which showed that 23 million more people would be uninsured in 2026 if the bill were enacted.
In the recording, Jacobs can be heard asking Gianforte about the CBO score. Gianforte says he doesn't have time and directs Jacobs to talk to his spokesman; then there is a scuffle and a crash.
"I'm sick and tired of you guys!" Gianforte can be heard yelling. "The last guy did the same damn thing. Get the hell out of here."
Gianforte's campaign spokesman said in a statement that Jacobs interrupted an interview "without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face, and began asking badgering questions."
"After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg's wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground," Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon said. "It's unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ."
That account from the campaign, however, appears to be contradicted by three Fox News journalists who had been in the room setting up for an interview with Gianforte:
"At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of 'I'm sick and tired of this!'
"Jacobs scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken. He asked Faith, Keith and myself for our names. In shock, we did not answer. He then said he wanted the police called and went to leave. Gianforte looked at the three of us and repeatedly apologized. At that point, I told him and Scanlon, who was now present, that we needed a moment. The men then left.
"To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff's deputies."
Jacobs tells Gianforte he broke his glasses and that he is going to report the incident to the police. He later called in to MSNBC and said that he was getting his elbow — which may have been injured during the altercation — X-rayed at a nearby hospital.
In his statement on Gianforte's misdemeanor assault citation, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin, who has previously donated $250 to Gianforte's congressional campaign, said that his "contribution has nothing to do with our investigation which is now complete."
The incident comes less than 24 hours before voters in Montana were set to head to the polls in a race that is seen as a potential bellwether for the 2018 congressional midterm elections.
The race between Gianforte and Democratic nominee Rob Quist had already tightened in a state that President Trump won by 20 points last November. It is unclear what effect the altercation might have on the contest, but at least one-third of voters have likely already cast their ballots early. The contest is to replace former GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, whom Trump named his interior secretary earlier this year.
Spending looks likely to reach $18 million in the fast moving, 85-day shootout, a record for the seat and double what was spent in the 2016 race. The candidates have each raised about $5 million, with more than $7 million being spent by outside groups.
Montana's contest pits a wealthy businessman — Gianforte, who narrowly lost the race for governor last year — against Quist, a locally famous singer-songwriter and political neophyte.
Democrats were already hopeful that negative headlines from Washington, D.C., would give the Stetson-wearing crooner Quist the momentum he needs to score an upset — and that was before the altercation between Gianforte and the reporter on Wednesday evening.
But Republicans have held Montana's House seat since 1996. The GOP is confident that Treasure State voters will stick with the party of Trump.
Quist was slow out of the gate, taking a month to get a campaign ad on TV, and he didn't get financial backing from the national Democratic Party until halfway into the 12-week race.
By contrast, Gianforte quickly won millions of dollars in support from the Republican Congressional Leadership Fund, the NRA and allied national groups. Gianforte had campaign ads on TV days before he even secured his party's nomination.
Gianforte has paired himself with aspects of the president's agenda in this race — promising "to fight back against Washington, D.C.'s war on the West" — after distancing himself from then-candidate Trump last fall. Gianforte was the only Republican statewide candidate in Montana to lose in November, receiving the fewest votes of any GOP candidate in what was otherwise a party sweep.
In that campaign, Democrats successfully painted Gianforte as a "New Jersey millionaire" trying to buy the governorship.
Gianforte moved to Montana 24 years ago from Pennsylvania, starting a software company that Oracle purchased in 2011 for $1.5 billion. Gianforte spent $6 million of his own money running for governor and has lent his House campaign $1.5 million this time around.
(His former employee Steve Daines, also a Republican, won Montana's U.S. House race in 2012 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014.)
Quist has attempted to demonize Gianforte for his wealth and out-of-state origins. In early ads, Quist defended himself against NRA attacks by polishing a vintage Winchester rifle, which he says he has owned since "long before Greg Gianforte showed up from New Jersey."
Late in the race, Quist pivoted to emphasizing Gianforte's support for the House health care bill. On the day it passed, the Republican told reporters he would have voted against it. But on the same day, in a recorded phone call to party backers that was leaked to the New York Times, Gianforte said he was "thankful" that it passed.
Republicans attack Quist for a history of personal financial troubles. But the Democrat has attempted to turn that sow's ear into a silk purse by saying his money problems are related to a botched surgery that rendered him indebted and uninsurable. Quist's final TV ads say that he, like half of all Montanans, could lose health coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.
There's no reliable public polling, but this week Gianforte is telling his backers, "this race is closer than it should be." Both his and Quist's volunteers have fanned out across the state in advance of an unusual election day that falls on the Thursday before the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Montana's Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock picked the election date, the earliest allowed by law.
"The biggest hurdle for us has been trying to combat voter confusion," said Rebecca Connors, clerk of Missoula County, the state's second most populous, on Monday.
Just weeks before absentee voting began May 1, a bipartisan bill to conduct the election solely by mail-in ballot failed in the Republican-controlled state Legislature.
"I feel like a lot of voters never found any resolution of how that outcome came, so we're getting lots of calls," said Connors.
Connors also notes that many traditional polling places won't be open; they're either already booked for school graduations or too expensive to staff for county governments that struggled to meet 2016 election expenses.
Prior to Wednesday's altercation, University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin said Quist's best shot hinges on a big Democratic turnout combined with low enthusiasm from Republican voters. But given the GOP's superior numbers in Montana, "Gianforte has a much bigger margin of error," Saldin said.
The Montana polls close Thursday at 10 p.m. ET.
Eric Whitney is a reporter with Montana Public Radio.
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