Republican Greg Gianforte Wins Montana Special Election After Being Charged With Assaulting Reporter

Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte speaks to supporters during a campaign meet and greet on May 24, 2017, in Missoula, Montana. (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Republican Greg Gianforte has won the special election for Montana’s open US House seat, CNN projects, defeating Democrat Rob Quist and capping off a whirlwind final 36 hours of the campaign that saw Gianforte being charged for allegedly assaulting a reporter.

With 83% of precincts reporting, Gianforte had 171,149 votes — or 50.3% of the vote, compared to Quist who has 149,138 votes, 43.9% of the vote, according to Edison Research.

Gianforte was considered the favorite heading into Thursday’s election to fill the seat once held by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, but that was before he allegedly “body-slammed” a reporter during his final campaign event in Bozeman on Wednesday.

By midnight Wednesday, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s office had charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault.

In 24 hours, the race has turned upside down. Just as questions continue to arise over why Gianforte wasn’t brought into the sheriff’s office for questioning and what will happen to the Republican now that he must appear in court by June 7, it’s time to count the votes in Montana.

The congressional race in Montana pitted two diametrically opposed candidates against one another. Gianforte: an articulate millionaire and tech entrepreneur who sold his company RightNow Technologies to Oracle in 2012 for $1.8 billion. Quist: a first-time candidate and Montana folk singer who’d amassed moderate Montana fame in the 1970s as a member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band.

Gianforte’s strongest supporters came out for his campaign’s election night party in a ballroom at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman. The room was filled with American flag balloons, a stage and “Gianforte U.S. Congress” signs, and filled with supporters of all ages and from all over the state as the night wore on. There was even a brief moment where a few supporters cheered “Go Greg, Go Greg,” when the latest projections came on the screen.

The early crowd of voters who turned out were standing by the candidate, unfazed by the events of the previous 24 hours.

“We whole-heartedly support Greg. We love him,” said Karen Screnar, a Republican voter who had driven all the way from Helena to support Gianforte. Screnar said she and her husband have known Gianforte for the better part of a decade. After Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault, Screnar said she was only “more ready to support Greg.”

“We’ve watched how the press is one-sided. Excuse me, that’s how I feel. (They’re) making him their whipping boy so to speak through this campaign,” Screaner said. “There comes a point where, stop it.”

Her husband, Terry, chimed in that he believed Gianforte was “set up.”

Meanwhile in Missoula, Quist who had a live band on stage at his rally, with some supporters dancing, a crowd made of young, college-aged voters as well as older liberal Missoulans.

What effect the late-breaking bombshell has on the race is unclear. Montana has a strong absentee voting tradition, with 259,558 votes — of the state’s entire 700,000 registered voters — already banked as of Wednesday night. Turn out is typically lower in special elections.

The question now is whether Republican base voters still showed up at the polls Thursday for Gianforte and whether Quist’s Democratic base was even more fired up to vote now.

The race seemed to be a longshot for Quist. In November, Trump won the state by 20 points and a Democrat hasn’t won the congressional seat for two decades. In recent weeks, however, as Trump has grappled with his own controversies in Washington over the ongoing Russia investigation, the race tightened.

Since Republicans in Congress passed a repeal of Obamacare earlier this month, Quist has doubled down on his embrace of health care as a cornerstone of the campaign.

Quist blamed a botched gallbladder strategy when confronted with a series of attacks that he had unpaid property taxes and debts.

Two days ago, the outcome in the Big Sky state seemed more certain. Now, it’s anybody’s guess.