A first-time Democratic candidate is seeking to pull off a surprise victory in Republican-dominated Montana on Thursday as the congressional race was roiled by controversy when the Republican candidate body slammed a reporter.
Democrat Rob Quist, a political newcomer, is running against Republican tech executive Greg Gianforte in a tight race for the vacant House of Representatives seat after President Donald Trump named Ryan Zinke secretary of the interior.
The Republican party has dominated Montana politics for two decades, and in 2016 Trump won presidential election by more than 20 percent of the votes. Gianforte was expected to win the special election.
But Gianforte’s ambitions were stalled on Wednesday, after a political correspondent for staunchly liberal The Guardian claimed on social media that the Republican candidate had “body slammed” him at a campaign event, breaking his eyeglasses.
Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses
— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) May 24, 2017
The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office consequently charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault and issued him a citation. He has until June 7 to appear in court, and faces a $500 fine and six months in jail if found guilty.
“The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault,” Sheriff Brian Gootkin said in the statement.
“One way or another, [Greg Gianforte] could win a term as a result of campaign—either in Congress or the Missoula County jail. Maybe both!” tweeted Barack Obama’s close aide David Axelrod.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) May 25, 2017
Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, mocked the incident, writing:
Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?”
Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) May 25, 2017
The alleged assault happened after Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs tried to question Gianforte about healthcare, according to an audio recording capture by the journalist.
Alicia Acuna, a Fox News Channel reporter, corroborated the incident’s description, saying she saw Gianforte as he “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him to the ground” and “watched in disbelief as Gianforte began punching [Jacobs] as he moved to on top of the reporter.”
Gianforte’s campaign didn’t deny the allegations of assault but insisted that Jacobs provoked the candidate after Jacobs came into his office, turned on his recorder and asked “badgering questions.”
“After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined,” campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said. “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.”
“It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ,” the statement read.
The campaign’s claim that Jacobs was the aggressor was disputed by Acuna. “At no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”
Following the controversy, three of the state’s largest newspapers, The Billings Gazette, The Missoulian and The Helena Independent Record, retracted their endorsements of the Republican candidate.