Republican Greg Gianforte claimed a narrow victory in Montana’s closely watched special election for the state’s at-large congressional seat, defeating Democrat Rob Quist in a race that is likely to be mined for clues about how the voting electorate feels about the political turbulence of Donald Trump’s young presidency heading into next year’s midterm elections.
With 83 percent of precincts reporting, Gianforte led Quist by roughly 7 points in the race.
The results came after a wild 24 hours in the race, in which Gianforte, a billionaire technology entrepreneur from Bozeman, was charged with misdemeanor assault after he allegedly “body slammed” Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, at a campaign event on Wednesday just hours before voters headed to the polls.
Speaking to supporters at his victory party, Gianforte publicly apologized for the altercation. “Last night, I made a mistake, and I took an action that I can’t take back,” Gianforte said in his first public statement on the incident. “I should not have responded the way I did, and for that I am sorry.”
“I should not have treated that reporter that way,” he added, apologizing to Jacobs by name.
The incident, which a Gianforte campaign aide initially blamed on Jacobs, prompted the state’s three largest newspapers to rescind their endorsements of the GOP candidate, though it’s unclear if the decision had any clear impact on the race. In a state known for its long tradition of early voting, roughly half of the estimated total ballots in the race had already been cast by the time the scandal broke, with most favoring Gianforte.
The special election was considered a crucial first test for Republicans looking ahead to next year’s 2018 midterm elections on the tricky question of whether it is politically safer to stick with Trump or run against him. Gianforte, who narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid last year after keeping Trump at a distance, did just the exact opposite in…