Gianforte Triumphs in Special Election

GOP candidate defeats Democrat's Quist, apologizes for election-eve assault

By Tristan Scott
Greg Gianforte campaigns in Kalispell on April 21, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Embattled Republican candidate Greg Gianforte on Thursday night won Montana’s special election for the state’s lone U.S. House seat, according to final results, ending a bitter race that on its final day was beset with damaging allegations that he assaulted a reporter.

In succeeding, the 56-year-old tech entrepreneur from Bozeman held on to a GOP seat vacated by Whitefish’s Ryan Zinke when President Donald Trump appointed him Interior Secretary, and which a Democrat hasn’t won in two decades.

Unofficial results show that Gianforte handily defeated Democrat Rob Quist, a career musician from Creston, despite facing a misdemeanor charge of assault for allegedly body slamming a reporter on the eve of the Treasure State’s widely followed special election.

The Montana Secretary of State reported Gianforte drawing 189,473 votes, or 50 percent. Quist received 166,483 votes, or 44 percent. The Associated Press called the race at 10:30 p.m.

Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks, a rancher from Inverness, eked out 21,509 votes, or 6 percent.

Even as voters continued to queue up outside the Flathead County Fairgrounds throughout the day on Thursday, reports of Gianforte’s physical aggression toward The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs dominated local and national news cycles, while prominent members of both major political parties denounced the Republican, who has closely aligned himself with President Donald Trump.

Still, Gianforte opened a steady lead shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m., winning by wide margins in Republican strongholds like Yellowstone and Flathead counties. Across Montana, voters cast more than half of their absentee ballots early, prior to the damning news reports.

In his victory speech to supporters in Bozeman, Gianforte addressed the allegations head-on, admitting to them, apologizing and promising to work hard for all Montanans.

“When you make a mistake you have to own up to it,” he said. “That is the Montana way. Last night I made a mistake and I took an action that I can’t take back. I am not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did and for that I am sorry. I should not have treated that reporter that way and for that I am sorry, Mr. Ben Jacobs.”

Gianforte also echoed many of the catch phrases that rang through Trump’s campaign, promising to “drain the swamp” and “make America great again,” a message consistent with his recent candidacy.

“I’ve always considered myself more of a work horse than a show horse,” he said. “And I will bring accountability to Washington, D.C.”

The recent momentum of Quist’s candidacy in the special election was widely viewed by Democrats as a potential referendum on the Trump administration, which faces its own degrees of criticism, particularly given that Montana is a state that Trump won by 20 percentage points in the November election. The party may continue to seize on that theory since Gianforte only defeated Quist by single digits.

Quist, 69, delivered a concession speech to supporters in Missoula, noting the energy and grassroots activism that his campaign helped generate during the sprint toward Thursday’s election. Quist, a political newcomer, said that on May 25, 1,123 volunteers were knocking on doors in a get-out-the-vote effort across the state, and applauded the civic spirit that helped buoy his bid for Congress.

“I think one thing we can say is that your voices were definitely heard in this election,” he said.

Quist said he called Gianforte, who also has never held political office, to offer his congratulations, encouraging the Republican to continue to reach out to all Montanans.

“I know that Montanans will hold Mr. Gianforte accountable,” Quist said. “Don’t be discouraged, be determined … You must continue to be involved. You must continue.”

Speaking from Washington, D.C., University of Montana Political Science Professor Robert Saldin said Gianforte’s path forward remains uncertain in the face of the election-eve allegations, which dominated political conversations on Capitol Hill.

He said he’s spoken to prominent members of both major parties who were critical of Gianforte, both before and after the recent allegation, and guessed the assault charge would continue to haunt him as a junior member of Congress.

“This doesn’t strike me as something that is going to fade away and I think he will be under intense pressure to resign. I’m hearing that from prominent conservatives and Democrats alike,” Saldin said. “I don’t know that he quite has the fortitude to weather this and pull it off.”

In Flathead County, one of Montana’s most reliably Republican counties, voters continued to file into the polling stations at a steady rate Thursday evening even as the special election drew to a close. Gianforte earned 20,257 votes in Flathead County, or 57 percent, compared to Quist’s 13,566 votes, or 38 percent.

Mark Stevens, whose family owns a health food store in Evergreen, said he hadn’t heard about the allegations against Gianforte at the time he cast his vote, but joked that the reporter “knew he was talking to someone from Montana.”

Stevens identified himself as a constitutionalist, and while he voted for Gianforte he also supported Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, and frequently votes across the ticket.

“I wish to God they’d have given me Bernie,” he said. “We’re losing our country here.”

Karen Christie voted for Quist by absentee ballot, but turned up at the fairgrounds to pick up her 22-year-old daughter, Mercedes Hoerner, who also cast a ballot for the Democratic candidate.

Both of Kalispell, they were well versed in the news that erupted Wednesday night.

“I think it’s a crying shame that it didn’t happen earlier, not that I would ever condone violence, but I don’t think it’s going to make a difference this late. I just don’t have much faith,” Christie said. “So many ballots have already been turned in through early voting.”

Christie said it’s ironic that Democrats fought for an all-mail ballot election given that the allegations against Gianforte were reported on the eve of the election.

“I bet Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief,” she said.

Seaghan Herron also voted for Quist, and said the news surrounding Gianforte is unfortunate given the level of attention Montana is receiving.

“I think the best adjective would be appalling,” he said. “It’s appalling and it creates serious image concerns for Montana.”

According to multiple witnesses, Gianforte was at his private campaign headquarters in Bozeman for an event on Wednesday at around 5 p.m. when a reporter from The Guardian approached him and persisted to press him about whether or not he supports the American Health Care Act, the GOP bill evaluated hours earlier by the Congressional Budget Office and which Gianforte had expressed conflicting views.

“We’ll talk to you about that later,” Gianforte says on a recording posted by The Guardian, referring Jacobs to campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon.

When Jacobs says that there won’t be time, Gianforte says “Just–” and there is a crashing sound. Gianforte yells, “The last guy who came here did the same thing,” and a shaken-sounded Jacobs tells the candidate he just body-slammed him.

“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte says.

Members of a Fox News Channel crew who say they witnessed the incident published a firsthand account, offering details that are at odds with Scanlon’s version of the event, which blames Jacobs and stands in stark contrast to the Fox News crew’s description of what unfolded.

News of the assault was followed by a late-night announcement by Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin that investigators had probable cause to charge Gianforte with misdemeanor assault.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, a staunch ally and former colleague to Gianforte, called for the candidate to apologize and condemned violence, while Montana Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said answering tough questions is “part of the job” as an elected leader.

Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who defeated Gianforte in last year’s gubernatorial race, issued a sharp rebuke against his former opponent.

“Yesterday’s events serve as another wake up call to all Montanans and Americans that we must restore civility in politics and governing, and demand more from people who hold the public’s trust,” according to Bullock, “One thing is clear: no matter what happens today, the actions of Gianforte do not reflect the values of Montana or its people.”

Saldin said the conflicting details between what Gianforte’s campaign released following the alleged assault and the accounts by multiple eyewitnesses are disconcerting.

“Compounding the bizarreness of the allegations was the statement from the campaign, which at the time sounded plausible if a bit of a stretch, because even listening to the audio it didn’t line up,” he said. “But how do you as a campaign release a statement like that knowing that there were other people in the room who were eyewitnesses, and now we know that it turns out to be a total lie? It’s very Trump like in that you just throw it out there regardless of the facts.”