(New York Slimes) BOZEMAN, Mont. — Greg Gianforte, a wealthy Montana Republican who was charged with assaulting a reporter on Wednesday, nonetheless won the state’s lone seat in the House of Representatives on Thursday, according to The Associated Press, in a special election held up as a test of the country’s political climate.
Mr. Gianforte, 56, was widely seen as a favorite to win against Rob Quist, a Democrat and country music singer. But he seemed to imperil his own candidacy in the final hours of the race after he accosted a journalist for The Guardian.
Voters here, though, shrugged off the episode and handed Republicans a convincing victory. Mr. Gianforte’s success underscored the limitations of the Democrats’ strategy of highlighting the House’s health insurance overhaul and relying on liberal anger toward President Trump, at least in red-leaning states.
Mr. Gianforte’s victory spares his party the short-term pain of losing a reliably Republican seat in Congress, but at the cost of having the newest member of the House majority arrive in Washington under a serious legal cloud.
While he won the race for the seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Mr. Gianforte still faces a misdemeanor assault charge that will require him to appear in a Montana courtroom next month. Republicans in Washington indicated that they were unlikely to block him from taking office, despite the possibility of a criminal conviction in the coming weeks.
According to an audio recording and the eyewitness account of a Fox News reporter, Mr. Gianforte flew into a rage and battered the Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs, after Mr. Jacobs asked him a straightforward question about the health care bill passed by House Republicans this month.
With voting in progress on Thursday, Mr. Gianforte faced mounting public demands from Republican leaders, including Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senator Steve Daines of Montana, to apologize.
Even before its ugly conclusion, the race in Montana, a state that has long mixed conservatism with populism, had evolved into an early referendum on President Trump and the Republican health care bill.
Republican groups, concerned about the growing backlash to Mr. Trump, poured more than twice as much money into the race as Democrats. The spending was initially a precautionary measure. But Republican officials grew nervous after Mr. Quist, 69, caught fire with progressive activists, who would eventually help him raise over $6 million even as Democrats in Washington expressed deep doubts about his prospects.
While Mr. Gianforte vowed to work with the Trump administration and campaigned with both Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Quist focused his campaign in its final weeks on the unpopular House health care bill. He hammered Mr. Gianforte for telling a group of Washington lobbyists he was “thankful” the bill had passed while suggesting to Montana voters that he would have opposed it.
But while backlash against the bill may have helped Mr. Quist modestly narrow the gap against Mr. Gianforte, it was not a cure-all for a candidate with a messy financial history running in a state Mr. Trump had won by more than 20 points.
In the end, Mr. Gianforte’s attack on the reporter did little more than inject a measure of 11th-hour drama into the race.
In ads rushed into production late Wednesday night, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee accused Mr. Gianforte of being “unhinged.” Accompanied by the jarring sounds of the altercation, which sent Mr. Jacobs to the hospital, the spots captured Mr. Gianforte screaming, “I’m sick and tired of you guys!”
But prospects that the altercation would tip the race to Mr. Quist were complicated by Montana’s early-voting tradition: More than half the estimated total ballots had already been returned.
Regardless of the winner, the specter of a June court date for Mr. Gianforte on a misdemeanor assault charge was an embarrassing coda for Republicans at a difficult moment. The party had already been forced to spend millions of dollars to prop up its nominee in a race being pored over for clues about the national political environment in the tumultuous first months of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
On Thursday, some of his Republican supporters vented publicly at their candidate even before the polls closed.
“He’s the problem,” Corry Bliss, who runs a “super PAC” aligned with House Republicans, said of Mr. Gianforte. When the contest began, Mr. Bliss said, private polling showed that Mr. Gianforte was as unpopular as he was popular, a leftover result of his failed campaign for governor last year.
“This race was essentially an unpopular incumbent trying to get re-elected,” said Mr. Bliss, whose Congressional Leadership Fund spent nearly $2.7 million on Mr. Gianforte’s behalf. “And in this environment, C-minus candidates aren’t going to cut it.”
Elected Republicans in Washington also expressed frustration, publicly scolding Mr. Gianforte.
“Should the gentleman apologize? Yeah, I think he should apologize,” Mr. Ryan, the House speaker, said. “I know he has his own version, and I’m sure he’s going to have more to say, but there’s no call for this, no matter what — on any circumstance.”
Mr. Gianforte kept silent while the polls were open on Thursday, and his campaign aides did not respond to messages.
His outburst placed Republicans in a distinctly awkward position as ballots were being cast, with victory in the race suddenly looking as uncomfortable as defeat.
A loss would have been an embarrassing setback and encouraged Democratic hopes for taking control of the House next year. But his victory forces Republicans in Congress to interact with, and address the behavior of, a man summoned to the Gallatin County Courthouse on June 7 to answer an accusation that he “purposely or knowingly” caused “bodily injury to another.”
While private polling consistently showed him ahead of Mr. Quist, Republicans fumed that Mr. Gianforte seemed unable to establish a dominant lead.
But a monthslong advertising onslaught assailing Mr. Quist on issues ranging from his troubled personal finances to his suggestion of a gun registry ultimately paid dividends.
In Montana, the news of the altercation spread like a Big Sky wildfire, dominating newspaper front pages and local television news in Bozeman, Mr. Gianforte’s adopted hometown, and across the sprawling state. Three of the largest daily papers in the state rescinded their endorsements of him.
Democrats here were newly buoyant about their chances but stopped short of predicting victory, given that more than 250,000 votes had been cast by Wednesday. There are some 700,000 voters in the state, and few political veterans expected turnout to reach much higher than 60 percent.
In downtown Bozeman on Thursday, many said they had already voted or were unmoved.
“I was already going to vote for Rob Quist,” said Ariel Lusty, a 22-year-old graduate student at Montana State, who sported an “I Voted” sticker as she sat inside Wild Joe’s Coffee Spot.
Richard Shanahan, a 75-year-old architect in Bozeman, said he had already voted by mail for Mr. Gianforte and was largely unbothered by the ugly end to the campaign.
“It doesn’t change my mind at all,” said Mr. Shanahan, who remarked on how ubiquitous the news had become overnight. “I think it’s being blown out of proportion.”