Republican multimillionaire Greg Gianforte won Montana's only U.S. House seat on Thursday despite being charged a day earlier with assault after witnesses said he grabbed a reporter by the neck and threw him to the ground.
Gianforte, a technology entrepreneur, defeated Democrat Rob Quist to continue the GOP's two-decade stronghold on the congressional seat. Democrats had hoped Quist, a musician and first-time candidate, could have capitalized on a wave of activism following President Donald Trump's election.
Instead, the win reaffirmed Montana's voters support for Trump's young presidency in a conservative-leaning state that voted overwhelmingly for him in November.
Gianforte was a strong favorite throughout the campaign and that continued even after authorities charged him with misdemeanor assault on Wednesday. Witnesses said he grabbed Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, and slammed him to the ground after being asked about the Republican health care bill.
Gianforte dropped out of sight after he was cited by police and ignored calls on Thursday by national Republicans for him to apologize to the reporter.
He emerged only at his victory celebration Thursday night, where he said he accepted responsibility for the incident. "Last night I made a mistake and I took an action I can't take back and I am not proud of what happened," Gianforte told the crowd. "I should not have responded the way I did and for that I am sorry."
The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Steve Stivers, issued a statement hailing Gianforte's win, as well as his apology. "Now he needs to resolve his legal issue so that he can start off on the right foot serving his constituents," Stivers said.
Gianforte must appear in court by June 7 on the misdemeanor charge, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.
"Regardless of what happens next, we will be competing hard for this seat in 2018," Rep. Ben Lujan of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said.
The campaign initially played off the incident, issuing a statement that appeared to blame Jacobs for the incident: “Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission,” the statement read, “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions.”
“Jacobs was asked to leave,” the statement read. “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. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”
The last-minute controversy unnerved Republicans, who also faced close calls this year in the traditionally Republican congressional districts in Kansas and Georgia. A runoff election is scheduled for next month in Georgia between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel after Ossoff fell just short of winning outright.
Quist told supporters that he called Gianforte to congratulate him on his win and to urge him to represent all Montanans. "I know that Montanans will hold Mr. Gianforte accountable," Quist said Thursday night.
Gianforte showed lukewarm support for Trump during his unsuccessful run for governor in Montana last fall but did an about-face and turned into an ebullient Trump supporter after he started campaigning for the congressional seat vacated by Republican Ryan Zinke, when he was tapped by Trump to serve as Interior Department secretary.
Gianforte urged Montana voters to send him to help Trump "drain the swamp," brought in Vice President Mike Pence and first son Donald Trump Jr. to campaign for him and was supported by millions of dollars of ads and mailers paid for by Republican groups.
But the theme of the election shifted Wednesday night when Jacobs walked into Gianforte's office as he was preparing for an interview with Fox News.
Jacobs began asking the candidate about the health care bill passed by the House when the crew and Jacobs say Gianforte slammed him to the floor, yelling "Get out of here!"
Gianforte's campaign issued a statement Wednesday blaming the incident on Jacobs. But on Thursday night, Gianforte apologized both to Jacobs and to the Fox News crew for having to witness the attack. "I should not have treated that reporter that way and for that I'm sorry, Mr. Jacobs."
It had been unclear if Gianforte's assault charge would impact the race. About a third of eligible voters in Montana had already cast their ballots in early voting, and others said it didn't influence their vote.
Shaun Scott, a computer science professor at Carroll College in Helena, said the assault charge was barely a factor in his decision.
"If you have somebody sticking a phone in your face, a mic in your face, over and over, and you don't know how to deal with the situation, you haven't really done that, you haven't dealt with that, I can see where it can ... make you a little angry," Scott said Thursday.
Cailley Tonn, a Bozeman ad executive who voted early for Gianforte, said after the alleged assault she said she wouldn't have changed her vote. "I was disappointed to see he flew off the handle like that," she said.
Quist, a popular 69-year-old singer and cowboy poet who was the front man for the Montana's Mission Mountain Wood Band, was helped by money that poured in from across the U.S. as Democrats seek to capture congressional seats that would have been considered safely Republican a year ago.
But Gianforte also benefited from millions of dollars spent on ads and mailers by GOP groups like the Conservative Leadership Fund.
Gianforte campaigned as a gun-loving Montanan endorsed by the National Rifle Association to build his credibility among hunting enthusiasts and to motivate gun rights activists to vote. He echoed the Republican Party mantras of cutting taxes, beefing up the military and securing the country's borders.
Montana is a conservative-leaning state that became even more so after voters last November overwhelmingly supported Trump, voted in Republican majorities in the state Legislature and elected GOP candidates to four of five statewide elected positions, leaving Gov. Steve Bullock as the only Democratic statewide elected official.
A Democrat has not held the Montana U.S. House seat since Pat Williams departed in 1997 after he decided not to seek re-election.
Quist surprised Democrats by nabbing his party's nomination at its convention in March. A supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Quist had never run for office before. Democrats were initially hopeful that he'd appeal to Montana's right-leaning voters who have a history of electing Democratic mavericks.
But Republicans rapidly mounted a wilting attack on the airwaves over Quist's financial troubles, including a history of unpaid taxes and liens. They bashed him as a tool of liberal Democrats like House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Quist eventually raised more than $6 million but struggled to come back from the early onslaught of negative publicity and advertising. He attacked Gianforte as a transplant from New Jersey -- Gianforte moved to the state in the 1990s -- which was a potent issue during the gubernatorial race but not enough to get Quist across the finish line.
Libertarian Mark Wicks was the third candidate in the race.
Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda in Bozeman, Amy Hanson in Helena and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.