- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2017

Republican Greg Gianforte muscled his way to victory in Montana, overcoming a challenge from Democrat Rob Quist and an election-eve scuffle with a reporter that led to a criminal charge being filed against him.

Mr. Gianforte defeated Mr. Quist less than 24 hours after he allegedly body-slammed a reporter from Britain’s Guardian newspaper and police charged him with misdemeanor assault.

The Associated Press called the race for the Republican more than 2½ hours after polls closed at 8 p.m. MDT.

With 83 percent of the precincts counted, Mr. Gianforte led Mr. Quist by a 50.3 percent to 43.9 percent margin. Libertarian Mark Wicks had 5.8 percent of the vote.

“Tonight, Montanans are sending a wake up call to the Washington DC establishment!” Mr. Gianforte said at his election night party. “Montanans said, ‘Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi can’t call the shots here in Montana.’ Montanans said, ‘We are going to drain the swamp.’ “

Mr. Gianforte then apologized by name to reporter Ben Jacobs, who accused him of body slamming him, saying it was a mistake and saying he took “an action that I can’t take back.”

“That is not the person that I am and it is not the way that I will lead in this state,” he said.

Undefeated in this year’s special congressional races after the election of President Trump, Republicans will now hold a 239-193 majority in the House.

Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, described the outcome as another “hard-fought victory” and applauded Mr. Gianforte for offering up an apology.

“Now he needs to resolve his legal issue so that he can start off on the right foot serving his constituents,” Mr. Stiver said.

During the campaign, Mr. Gianforte embraced Mr. Trump, who won the state by more than 20 percentage points in the November election.

Still, there were signs Thursday that Mr. Gianforte’s victory could cause headaches for GOP lawmakers, who faced a barrage of questions over whether they condone Mr. Gianforte’s behavior and whether he should be barred from joining the GOP conference.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday that Mr. Gianforte should apologize to Mr. Jacobs but said the rest lay in the hands of Montana voters.

“The choice will be made by the people of Montana,” Mr. Ryan said. “I do not think this is acceptable behavior, but the choice will be made by the people of Montana.”

Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, also said Mr. Gianforte’s behavior was unacceptable and said he doesn’t condone that sort of violence.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, described Mr. Gianforte as a “sort of wannabe Trump” and said she hoped Montana voters would demand a “higher standard of behavior … for the sake of the children”

“How do you explain that to children? You ask a question, I’m going to strangle you? I mean, really,” she said.

Voters — many of whom have a negative opinion of the news media — were not swayed enough to push Mr. Quist over the finish line.

More than 200,000 absentee ballots absentee ballots were cast before the tussle.

For Democrats, Mr. Gianforte’s victory is a letdown.

The party is eager to capitalize on the wave of anti-Trump sentiment among progressive activists and to score an electoral victory that they can point to as proof that Mr. Trump’s star has dimmed four months into his presidency.

Democrats hoped the backlash against the bill the House GOP passed to repeal and replace Obamacare would be enough for Mr. Quist to capture the at-large seat, which Republicans have held since 1997.

Mr. Gianforte also shot himself in the foot Wednesday with the incident with the reporter, who had asked him to respond to a Congressional Budget Office analysis that found that 23 million fewer people would have health coverage on the GOP plan.

Three newspapers in the state responded by rescinding their endorsements of Mr. Gianforte.

The fallout lifted the hopes of Democrats.

Looking to make the most of the incident, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a television ad Thursday that highlighted audio from the wild confrontation.

But Democrats are now 0 for 2 in special election races.

Democrats also came out on the losing end of the April special election in the 5th Congressional District in Kansas — though they touted the final result as a moral victory after they cut 24 percentage points off Mr. Trump’s margin of victory in the November election.

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, spun the outcome in a positive light, saying Republicans once against had to “pull out all the stops to eke out a narrow win for another billionaire candidate, pouring millions more than Democrats into a race in a district that Donald Trump won by more than 20 points.”

Both parties will now turn their attention to the June 20 special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where polls show Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in a tight race.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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