The Rumble In Montana

Update 5/26/2017 01:00 ET Greg Gianforte (R) has been declared the winner of the Montana at-large House seat.

Update 20:55 ET: The polls on Montana closed at 10 PM ET. Early results have a very close race with Gianforte with a slight lead 48.3% t0 46% for Quist. Keep in mind most of these votes were absentee ballots that weer cast before the assault.

There is a special election going on today in Montana to fill its at-large seat in the House of Representatives after Republican representative, Ryan Zinke, was appointed Interior Secretary. The race is tighter than expected between the two candidates but last night it took a really weird turn when the Republican candidate assaulted a reporter from The Guardian. The incident was not only witnessed by other reporters but has also caught on the reporter’s cell phone.

Republican candidate charged with assault after ‘body-slamming’ Guardian reporter
By Julia Carrie Wong and Sam Levine, The Guardian

Ben Jacobs, a Guardian political reporter, was asking Greg Gianforte, a tech millionaire endorsed by Donald Trump, about the Republican healthcare plan when the candidate allegedly “body-slammed” the reporter.

“He took me to the ground,” Jacobs said by phone from the back of an ambulance. “I think he whaled on me once or twice … He got on me and I think he hit me … This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me in reporting on politics.”

Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna, field producer Faith Mangan and photographer Keith Railey witnessed the incident at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters in Montana, according to an account published on the Fox News website. After Jacobs asked Gianforte his question, Acuna wrote: “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. [..]

Jacobs subsequently reported the incident to the police. The Gallatin county sheriff’s office said on Wednesday night it had completed its investigation and that Gianforte had been issued with a charge of misdemeanour assault.

Of course, the Gianforte campaign issued a a statement blaming the “liberal journalist” for initiating the encounter. Immediately after the incident, three Montana newspapers withdrew their endorsements of Gianforte.

The GOP has poured over two million dollars into this race against the Democratic newcomer, Rob Quist, a folksinger. Quist’s campaign had been running on a shoestring but since his campaign caught on with grassroots Democrats and garnered media attention, the donations have turned into a small dollar juggernaut. Democrats have made some strides in Montana recently winning the governorship last year. The state, however, went overwhelmingly for Trump, 56 – 35 and reelected Zinke 56 -41 against his Democratic opponent. The race to fill that seat has now become a referendum on Trump whose popularity is slowly slipping among his hard core supporters.

Considering the record-breaking Georgia special election that will be decided next month, this election will serve as a window into the conditions Republicans are likely to face in the midterm elections. The Democrats only need to take back 24 seats to regain the majority. If both Quist and Jon Osoff, the candidate in Georgia’s 6th with a six point lead, win, the road to victory for Democrats becomes a bit lighter.

There are three outcomes to this race:

1. A win for the Democrat

Quist is a folk singer with no government experience and fairly extensive personal baggage. If he wins, Democrats will see it as repudiation of the GOP health care bill, a major boost in their momentum, and proof that President Donald Trump’s unpopularity would be fatal for Republicans in the midterms. [..]

2. A narrow victory for the Republican

The most likely outcome, according to both public and private polls, is that Gianforte wins by a single digit margin.

Both parties spent the week spinning expectations around this outcome, with Democrats laying the groundwork to claim a moral victory and Republicans hoping to set their bar even lower so they could label a thin margin a big win. [..]

3. A big night for Gianforte

A double-digit margin would leave Republicans breathing a sigh of relief and Democrats feeling dejected — though the GOP would not be out of the woods yet.

Montana has early voting through absentee ballots, that can be mailed in as late as election day. So far, absentee turnout has been large and this incident may a bigger impact on the result:

As of Wednesday night, 259,558 ballots have been returned, said Derek J. Oestreicher, the Director of Elections and Voter Services in the Office of the Montana Secretary of State. That number is of 357,596 absentee ballots sent out, meaning about 73% of absentee ballots are in.

Since audio of the scuffle surfaced, Montana’s Secretary of State office has been getting calls and questions asking if voters can come in and change their vote. Under Montana law, however, ballots that have mailed in and received by county election administrators are considered votes received and cannot be changed.

Missoula County election administrator Rebecca Connors says she got a dozen phone calls just this morning from voters wanting to change their vote. Had the audio with Jacobs not happened, she would have had zero, Connors told CNN. [..]

Of approximately 700,000 Montana registered voters overall, 37% cast their vote early, Oestreicher said. This is before in person voting began Thursday.

Montanans can register to vote and vote on the same day so the 700,000 overall registered voters could rise. Polls are open until 8 p.m. local time, 10 p.m. ET.

Should Gianforte win, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) can refuse to seat him, that’s if he had any guts, as Charlie Pierce said:

And yes, Ryan is within his rights to tell Gianforte, the thug, to pound sand. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution reads, “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.” So, if Ryan doesn’t want his caucus to include a thug like Gianforte, he can make sure it doesn’t.

There is precedent for that as well. In January of 1967, the House voted overwhelmingly to refuse to seat Adam Clayton Powell, Jr (D-NY90). And if you were wondering what Gianforte’s beef was with The Guardian was about, Charlie fills in the history:

And is there a Russian angle to this story? Of course there is. On April 25, Jacobs reported that Gianforte owned almost $250,000 in shares in a couple of index funds that are tied to the Russian economy. It doesn’t seem like Gianforte is a full-scale kulak yet based on these investments, but it does suggest that his animus toward Jacobs might pre-date Wednesday evening.

The Republicans can’t seem to escape that Russian connection.

Anyway, the rumble in Montana just made this race even more watchable. Results won’t start coming in until after 10 PM ET and it may take a day or two to get a final count, so stay tuned.