Election Day is almost over in Montana, where voters are casting the final ballots in their wild special House election less than 24 hours after Republican candidate Greg Gianforte was charged with assault for allegedly attacking a reporter covering his campaign.
Polls close at 8 p.m. local time (10 p.m. Eastern) in the race between Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, a campaign that captured national attention this week after Gianforte’s on-tape blow-up with The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs, which was described by him and three other journalists who witnessed the episode as a “bodyslam.”
Private polling indicated the campaign was getting closer, with Gianforte’s lead shrinking, even before the incident threw an extra dose of unpredictability into the unusual Thursday election. Gianforte, a former technology executive who lost a run for governor in 2016, and Quist, a folk singer and first-time candidate, are running to fill Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s old seat in Congress.
Though President Donald Trump carried Montana by 20 percentage points in November and remains popular there, the state has become a battleground in the last few months. Energized Democratic activists have poured more than $6 million into Quist’s campaign, trying to push back against Republicans in Washington.
"I remember talking to people when it first started who said this was a slam dunk, Gianforte’s it. And it’s not there anymore,” Montana Democratic Party chairman Jim Larson told POLITICO recently. “It is a lot closer than people ever thought it would be.”
Over a quarter-million voters had already cast absentee ballots by the time of the Gianforte incident, which will limit its impact on the final results. But the story led local newscasts throughout Montana on Wednesday night and Thursday morning as the remaining voters prepared to go to the polls.
Gianforte’s campaign blamed Jacobs on Wednesday — but that account was directly contradicted by Fox News reporters who witnessed the altercation. Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Fox News’ Alicia Acuna wrote. “Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”
Before that, Republicans had been growing concerned about Gianforte’s performance for weeks, noting that the GOP has underperformed its usual margins in a number of special elections so far this year — and that Gianforte was still damaged from the negative ads he faced while running for governor in 2016.
Gianforte’s personal wealth helped fund his campaign, but it also became a point of attack for the populist, cowboy hat-wearing Quist, whose campaign also criticized Gianforte as an out-of-stater. (He is originally from New Jersey.) And Quist’s big, late fundraising helped him go on offense with more blistering TV ads.
But while small-dollar donors have invested heavily in Quist’s underdog campaign, Democratic groups were more wary about the race — a point of contention with activists who want to see the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee investing more money in more campaigns in red states and districts. The party has been much more involved in another special House election in Georgia, where Democrat Jon Ossoff is locked in a tight race with Republican Karen Handel for a longtime GOP district in the Atlanta suburbs.
The DCCC and House Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC, did put some cash into Montana, but Republicans ultimately spent $7 million on advertising there versus about $3 million from Democrats.
Quist also faced a slew of damaging attacks on his financial, medical and tax history, including a series of ads featuring contractors who said Quist had stiffed them. Quist also faced ads tying him to unpopular national Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Quist tried to turn the tables on Gianforte on health care in the final weeks of the race, after Gianforte was taped telling lobbyists he was “thankful” that House Republicans passed their health care bill earlier this month, even as he publicly claimed he wasn’t sure whether he would support the legislation. Gianforte was facing questions on health care from the reporter on Wednesday before allegedly assaulting him.
Before that, Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. visited Montana to hold rallies with Gianforte and increase Republican enthusiasm for the special election. Pence and President Donald Trump also recorded phone calls supporting Gianforte before Election Day.
Quist got outside help from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who endorsed him and visited Montana to rally Democratic voters.