Updated 4:34 a.m. | Republican Greg Gianforte won the special election for Montana’s at-large House seat Thursday night.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, he led Democrat Rob Quist 50 percent to 44 percent, The Associated Press reported. Gianforte will fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, who left to become Interior secretary.
Most polls had showed Gianforte leading, but the contest, which had already grown closer than expected for a reliably GOP seat, crossed into unknown territory Wednesday night when Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault after attacking a reporter at his campaign headquarters in Bozeman, Montana.
The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs had tried to ask him about the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the House Republicans’ health care bill. But Jacobs tweeted Wednesday night that Gianforte had “body-slammed” him, and the newspaper later posted audio of the encounter from Jacobs’ recorder.
That night, Gianforte’s campaign released a statement with a version of events that did not match the audio recording, and the candidate stayed silent on Election Day. He must report to court by June 7 and could face a maximum $500 fine and six months in jail.
Gianforte broke his silence at his victory celebration Thursday night, where he apologized to Jacobs.
“Last night, I made a mistake and I took an action I can’t take back and I am not proud of what happened,” he told the crowd. “I should not have responded the way I did and for that I am sorry.”
“That is not the person I am or the leader I will be for Montana,” he added.
National Democrats took heat for not investing much in this race. Wednesday night, Democratic outside groups quickly released digital and radio ads using the audio of the attack. But it might have been too late for the incident to boost Quist. By the time polling places opened on Thursday, about half of the estimated total ballots had already been cast early.
While Quist, a first-time candidate and folk musician, was able to tap into grass-roots liberal energy to raise more than $6 million, Gianforte benefited from massive outside spending from GOP groups attacking Quist.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, dropped $2.7 million on the race. Just six months earlier, Gianforte had lost a bid for Montana governor, underperforming President Donald Trump by double digits. Zinke won re-election last fall by 16 points.
Corry Bliss, the fund’s executive director, has compared Gianforte to an unpopular incumbent running for re-election. “In this environment, a C-minus candidate isn’t going to cut it. So we decided to take this race very seriously from the beginning,” Bliss said Thursday. Republicans hammered Quist for his personal financial struggles and tied him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.