House of Representatives

Montana special election: GOP's Greg Gianforte builds lead in early returns

A Republican candidate facing a misdemeanor assault charge had built a comfortable lead Thursday night in a special election to fill Montana's lone seat in the House of Representatives.

With 57 percent of precincts reporting, Greg Gianforte led Democrat Rob Quist by more than 22,000 votes out of nearly 270,000 ballots cast. 

Approximately a third of Montana's eligible voters had cast absentee ballots before Gianforte was cited Wednesday by the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office following a confrontation with Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. Witnesses, including a Fox News crew, said Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck and slammed him to the ground while yelling "Get the hell out of here!"

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Gianforte, a wealthy technology executive, has until June 7 to answer the charge in court. If convicted, he could face up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said Gianforte was charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony because no weapon was used and Jacobs was not seriously injured. The county prosecutor is reviewing the case.

Gianforte kept a low profile Thursday, canceling television interviews and not appearing in public even as his supporters readied his victory party.

His campaign has blamed Jacobs, contending he aggressively shoved his phone in the candidate's face and grabbed Gianforte's wrist as the Republican tried to move it away.

Shaun Scott, a computer science professor at Carroll College in Helena, voted for Gianforte despite the assault charge, saying it 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," he said.

Advertising executive Cailley Tonn of Bozeman had already mailed in her absentee ballot when the melee occurred at Gianforte's campaign headquarters.

Still, she said, the incident would not have changed her vote for Gianforte.

"I was disappointed to see he flew off the handle like that," she said.

But in the end, she added, her choice was about affirming the Republican platform.

Montana backed Donald Trump by 20 percentage points over Hillary Clinton but also re-elected its Democratic governor, who defeated Gianforte in November by 5 percentage points.

Voters lean Republican and prefer iconoclasts along with limited government and their right to bear arms.

Gianforte hit upon these themes in the race to replace Montana's previous congressman, Ryan Zinke, who became Trump's Interior secretary in March.

The Republican candidate focused on protecting the 2nd Amendment and tried to tie Quist, a first-time candidate, to liberal Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

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.

Three of Montana's biggest newspapers pulled their endorsements of Gianforte -- without endorsing his opponent -- while leaders of both major parties called on him to apologize.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said what occurred was "wrong and should not happen." Pelosi called Gianforte "a wannabe Trump."

Republican Tina Stark of Townsend said she doesn't know Gianforte or whether has a temper.

"But I can understand how somebody could push somebody's buttons," she said. "I don't advocate violence, but when you're told to back off, you need to back off."

Some voters didn't see the attack altering the dynamics of the contest, which has dominated state politics for weeks.

"I don't think it probably changed very many minds or votes today, unfortunately," said Patrick Paradis of Helena, who voted for Quist. "Politics are pretty entrenched right now in terms of who people are going to follow and who people are going to vote for."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.