A Republican businessman from Montana won the state’s US House seat after being charged with assaulting a reporter on the eve of the election, a victory that may temper Democrats’ hopes for a massive anti-Trump wave next year.
Greg Gianforte apologised late on Thursday for attacking a reporter who had asked about the GOP health care bill.
“Last night, I made a mistake. I took an action I can’t take back and I am not proud of what happened,” he said.
Yet Gianforte’s single-digit win paled to President Donald Trump’s 20-point romp in Montana in November, a sign that Republicans will have to work hard to defend some of their most secure seats to maintain control of Congress.
The race ultimately turned on the weaknesses of both Gianforte and his opponent – folk singer and Democrat Rob Quist – making it tough to use as a barometer for the nation’s political mood.
Gianforte was cited for assault on Wednesday night after witnesses said he slammed to the ground a reporter who was asking him questions about the Republican health care bill.
A technology entrepreneur who was widely regarded among even Republican strategists as an imperfect candidate, Gianforte could be heard on an audio tape yelling at Ben Jacobs, who is a reporter for The Guardian.
By the time sheriff’s deputies arrived, more than half of voters had already cast their ballots in the race due to the state’s mail-in voting law. It was difficult to determine on election night to what extent voters who cast a ballot on Thursday were influenced by the altercation.
Donald Trump, in Italy for a G7 summit, said to journalists after Gianforte’s victory: “Great win in Montana.”
After the incident on Wednesday, Gianforte’s campaign issued a statement blaming the reporter. The Republican candidate cancelled television interviews and stayed out of sight while the polls were open on Thursday.
But after he was declared the winner, Gianforte apologised for the attack.
“When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it. That’s the Montana way,” he said. “Last night, I made a mistake.”
The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Steve Stivers, issued a statement hailing Gianforte’s win, as well as his apology. “Now he needs to resolve his legal issue so that he can start off on the right foot serving his constituents.”
Gianforte must appear in court by 7 June on the misdemeanour charge, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Stivers’ Democratic counterpart, Rep. Ben Lujan of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, contended in a statement that the election was “tainted” by the assault. “There’s no question in my mind that Gianforte should not be sworn into office,” Lujan said. “Regardless of what happens next, we will be competing hard for this seat in 2018.”