Why Greg Gianforte Won Montana's Special Election Despite Trump, Body Slam–Gate and Concerns Over the Republican Health Care Plan

Greg Gianforte
Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte looks on during a campaign meet and greet at Lions Park on May 23, in Great Falls, Montana. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Normally, the words "Montana special election" don't set the political class refreshing their browsers into the middle of the night.

But Thursday's Republican victory for an open House of Representatives seat turned out to be a hyper-interpreted microcosm of America's crazy national moment, complete with a "body slam" that sent a reporter to the hospital.

In one sense, it's not shocking that Greg Gianforte, a software millionaire, was projected to win the House seat vacated when Representative Ryan Zinke was tapped to be secretary of interior. But it was a surprisingly close election. The Democratic candidate, Rob Quist, a folksy singer who ran lots of ads with his trusty rifle, seemed to have a shot at an upset in this gun-loving, Republican-leaning state that has gone Democratic in a presidential race just once in the last 50 years. Quist ran a strong campaign buoyed by doubts about the future of health care and the bizarre last-minute assault charge leveled against the Republican candidate. But Quist lacked the charisma and working-class appeal of Senator Jon Tester and Governor Steve Bullock, Democrats who had the advantage of running in 2012, a high-turnout presidential year.

Some Republicans may wish they'd lost the seat. Gianforte, who was projected to win the race, faced widespread opprobrium after he was accused of body-slamming a reporter, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian, a British-based newspaper with a large American presence. While the New Jersey–raised Gianforte issued a statement denying the charges, few were buying it. Jacobs's audio recording of the encounter and the eyewitness account of a Fox News crew undercut the Republican claim—adding credence to the reporter's charge that he was decked. Gianforte is scheduled to appear in state court before the middle of next month to address misdemeanor assault charges. Jacobs was released after being examined at a hospital in Bozeman, where the incident took place.

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Ultimately, though the state's GOP character carried Gianforte to victory, despite health care concerns that dominated the race. The Montana Republican waffled about whether he would support the House bill repealing Obamacare that passed earlier this spring, saying he was waiting to see the final score from the Congressional Budget Office. ( The CBO found that 23 million fewer Americans would have health insurance under the bill than if Obamacare was left in place.) Jacobs was trying to pin down Gianforte shortly after the CBO report came out on Wednesday. He got his glasses broken for his efforts.

Gianforte also got a boost by early voting. More than two-thirds of the ballots were cast before election day, and since Montana, unlike some states, does not allow voters to change their choice in person on election day, the GOP candidate could afford to lose the support of those who'd waited to go to the polls. Election day voters woke up to read that no fewer than three newspapers that had backed Gianforte withdrew their endorsements after the bizarre body slam incident.

Had Quist won, no doubt Democrats would be seeing it as an ominous sign for House Republicans in 2018, and Republicans would be portraying the evening as a fluke, the self-sabotage of an unstable candidate ill-suited for Washington, where microphones in your face are part of the job.

With a modest Republican win for Gianforte, neither Democrats nor Republicans can take great solace or discomfort in the results.

We'll know more about the 2018 landscape in a few weeks, after a special election in the Atlanta suburbs, where a Democrat seems poised to capture a historically Republican seat that once belonged to Newt Gingrich. But even in that race, it may be hard to read too much into the results. The district has become increasingly Democratic since Gingrich's day, and if it turns blue, that may mean little in terms of national trends.

Gianforte's win may turn out to be modest comfort for the Trump White House—proof that historical voting patterns may be enough to lift Republican candidates to victory at a time when the president is unpopular and the candidates have profound flaws, like an inability to control their temper.