Montana isn’t known for exciting political races, but a race for an open House seat in the Treasure State has turned into a cocktail of “House of Cards” and WWE, with Democrats smelling an upset in the traditionally red state as the Republican candidate was charged after allegedly body-slamming a reporter.
Republican Greg Gianforte (pictured), a millionaire and tech entrepreneur, and Democrat Rob Quist are vying to take the seat left vacant by Ryan Zinke after Zinke became President Trump’s Interior Secretary.
Voters go to the polls Thursday night in a race being watched closely by politicos across the nation trying to get a sense of how Trump’s turbulent time in the White House may affect the midterms next year.
Trump won Montana by over 20 points in 2016, and while Gianforte was expected to win easily, polls have the lead tightening as Democrats look to make the race a referendum on Trump’s recent controversies in Washington and the GOP health care bill. A Democratic poll conducted last month showed Gianforte’s lead was just six points.
“We are literally in a dogfight right now,” a Montana Republican familiar with the race told The Hill. “I think it is essentially a toss-up. It’s really tightening up. The nationalization of the race contributed to a lot of that.”
But the race was (literally) thrown into turmoil late Wednesday when Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian, alleged he was “body-slammed” by Gianforte when asking about the CBO score on the Republican health care bill.
Gianforte’s campaign pushed back, saying that Jacobs entered the office without permission and “aggressively shoved” a recorder in the candidate’s face. The statement says Jacobs was asked to leave and to lower the recorder (neither of which is heard on a recording released by the Guardian).
“Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground,” the statement said.
Fox News’ Alicia Acuna also supported Jacob’s account saying Gianforte grabbed Jacobs “by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.”
Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault and appeared to go dark Thursday, canceling interviews with both Fox News and NBC’s Meet the Press.
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) May 25, 2017
At least three newspapers, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian and the Billings Gazette, pulled their endorsements of Gianforte in the wake of the incident. Meanwhile, Democrats seized on the alleged assault, with both MoveOn.org and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launching ads that played audio of the incident.
Here’s the ad we launched last night targeting Montana VOTERS. There’s still time to stop Greg Gianforte after his alleged violent assault. pic.twitter.com/pYp8E7Bebb
— DCCC (@dccc) May 25, 2017
How much the “body-slam” will affect the race is debatable. Absentee ballots have already been cast before the incident, and are likely to be considerable as any voter can vote by absentee ballot, while voters voting on the issues that affect them are unlikely to be dissuaded by a fight with a beltway reporter.
Similar “fatal” controversies in the presidential campaign only boosted Trump– who Gianforte has drawn close to. However, others may see it as a sign of the candidate’s instability, and it could turn undecided voters who aren’t engaged off Gianforte. It is also almost certainly going to be the only thing voters hear about before going to the polls.
A key factor in the race will also be how motivated the Democratic base is, which will also be a deciding factor in the 2018 midterms. Democrats are hopeful that Trump will motivate their base to turn out in the same way President Barack Obama motivated the Republican base to turn out in 2010.
But while some were looking for a big Democratic turnout to serve up a big upset in Montana, others were lowering expectations.
Matt McKenna, a Democratic strategist working with Quist, told Politico that while enthusiasm appears to be high, “the same people who tell you they know what turnout is going to be are the people who try to get you to buy a time share in Panama City, Florida.”
Adam Shaw is a politics reporter for Breitbart News based in New York. Follow Adam on Twitter: @AdamShawNY