Several outlets, including the Associated Press, projected that Gianforte would defeat his Democratic rival, Rob Quist, in a race to fill the seat of Ryan Zinke, who resigned to become Secretary of the Interior. Although the seat has been considered safely in Republican hands, Democrats’ hopes were boosted in recent weeks as polls narrowed.
On Wednesday, Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian, said that he was “body slammed” by Gianforte as he tried to ask a question about the recently released Congressional Budget Office assessment of the impact of the House repeal-and-replace plan for Obamacare.
In his victory speech, Gianforte apologized to Jacobs.
“Last night I learned a lesson…and when you make a mistake you have to own up to it, that’s the Montana way,” he said. “I took an action I cannot take back. I am not proud of what happened.”
“And for that I am sorry,” before citing Jacobs by name.
Jacobs’ story was bolstered by audio he had of the incident, as well as three witnesses, a crew from Fox News. Late Wednesday, authorities charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault.
Given that as much as 70% of the vote was mail-in, it was hard to discern how much of an impact the altercation had on the race. Quist emphasized issues like healthcare during the race, and refrained from commenting on the incident. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee produced ads to run on Thursday highlighting the altercation.
The incident was condemned by journalism groups, including the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, as well the Writers Guild of America, East, and three Montana newspapers pulled their endorsements. A number of commentators put some blame on President Trump and his frequent attacks on the media as creating the environment for such confrontations between journalists and the subjects they cover. Trump has called media outlets the “enemy of the American people” and the “crooked media.”
CNN’s Don Lemon noted that it was not until the most recent presidential election that political journalists have had moments where they have felt under threat. “If you think this election cycle didn’t contribute to it, and Donald Trump’s rhetoric didn’t contribute to it, I’ll say it again, you are sadly mistaken,” he said on Thursday.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Gianforte to apologize, but he said that it was up to Montana voters to decide whether he was fit for office.
Gianforte did not apologize until after he won. In fact, his campaign initially issued a statement that pinned the blame for the altercation on Jacobs and labelled him a “liberal journalist.” Gianforte canceled planned appearances on Fox News and MSNBC, while right wing radio hosts like Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh made light of the incident. Limbaugh even called Gianforte a “manly, obviously studly Republican candidate.”