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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes — Gianforte Meltdown Edition

So the big question this morning is which candidate will be helped in today’s special election by an incident in which the Republican candidate for Montana’s sole House seat, Greg Gianforte allegedly body-slammed and punched a reporter for The Guardian, Ben Jacobs (described as “a liberal journalist” in Gianforte’s media statement). Jacobs was asking the candidate if he had read the Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act. According to Fred Barbash’s Washington Post account of the incident, Gianforte was cited by the Gallatin County sheriff for misdemeanor assault and Montana’s three major newspapers withdrew their previous endorsements of the Republican. Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna, who witnessed the incident, wrote that “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.”…Acuna and her crew “watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’” While the incident is expected to energize the base supporters of both Gianforte and his opponent, Democratic candidate Rob Quist, it is unclear at this point how it will influence potential swing voters in Montana today.

In her account at Fox News Politics, Acuna also wrote, “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff’s deputies.”

As Ben Kamisar writes at The Hill, “Montana is a tricky state to predict. Pre-election polling is notoriously unreliable both because of the state’s size and the independent nature of its electorate…Last year’s presidential election is proof of the state’s purple leanings. While Republican Donald Trump blew Democrat Hillary Clinton out in the state by a 22-point margin, Gianforte lost his gubernatorial bid to Democrat Steve Bullock by 4 points…Republicans are leaning on President Trump’s popularity in the state to win votes for Gianforte. Vice President Pence and Donald Trump Jr. both campaigned for him, while Trump and Pence appeared in robocalls days before the election.”

As for possible late voter decisions resulting from the incident, Montana is one of 15 states that allow same-day voter registration, which could help the candidate who has the best GOTV operation.

In their New York Times coverage of the Quist-Gianforte race, Jonathan Martin and Nate Cohn note that “Within hours, newspapers in Missoula, Billings and Helena had rescinded their endorsements of Mr. Gianforte, House Democrats released a digital ad featuring the audio recording, and Republicans were in a state of paralysis about what to do with a candidate who suddenly had a court date next month…At a final rally for Mr. Quist in a brewpub in Helena, activists were electrified by the news, and some of them said they intended to play the tape for those yet to vote when canvassing for Mr. Quist…Washington-based Republicans were already grumbling about having to spend millions of dollars on behalf of Mr. Gianforte, who is a multimillionaire. Montana still occasionally elects Democrats statewide, but it leans Republican and has not sent a Democrat to the House for over two decades…officials in both parties believe that more than half of the total ballots that will be cast in the election had been submitted before Thursday…Republicans outspent Democrats more than two-to-one on television and radio, according to media buyers in both parties.”

Gianforte was undoubtedly feeling additional media pressure as a result of the Congressional Budget Office’s devastating report on the American Health Care Act, which he strongly supported. Clare Foran notes at The Atlantic: “The outcome of the Montana election could also complicate Republican plans to push a conservative policy agenda through Congress. Republican leaders cobbled together the votes to pass the American Health Care Act in the House earlier this month, but a GOP health-care bill has yet to come together in the Senate. One Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the AHCA would result in 23 million Americans being uninsured by 2026, compared to the law as is. ” That Gianforte responded to a tough but fair question about the CBO report and his support of the GOP bill with the temperament of an immature jr. high school student won’t help with Montana moderate voters. Ed Kilgore and Margaret Hartmann noted in New York magazine that “Last month, Jacobs reported that Gianforte, a tech millionaire, owns about $250,000 in shares of two index funds that are invested in the Russian economy and have holdings in companies under U.S. sanctions.”

Some observers are wondering if Gianforte’s behavior should be considered light of the climate created by Trump’s unprecedented media-bashing. In her Washington Examiner post, “Joe Scarborough: Greg Gianforte’s bodyslam not a surprise in the ‘age of Trump’,” Melissa Quinn  writes, “”Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough said Republican candidate Greg Gianforte’s assault on a reporter Wednesday night isn’t surprising “in the age of Trump,” and warned President Trump’s “words have consequences.”…All three papers overnight took their endorsements away from this Republican guy,” Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, said Thursday of the press reaction in Montana. “It’s that incredible. A guy assaults a reporter, which I guess shouldn’t be too surprising in the age of Trump where he calls the press ‘enemy of the people.’ There reckless words have consequences.”

Business Insider’s Brian Logan pulled together the comments from the three major newspapers who rescinded their endorsements:: “The editorial board at the Billings Gazette said: “We previously supported Gianforte because he said he was ready to listen, to compromise, to take the tough questions. Everything he said was obliterated by his surprising actions that were recorded and witnessed Wednesday. We simply cannot trust him. Because trust — not agreement — is essential in the role of representative, we cannot stand by him…An article from the Independent Record offered this rebuke: “Democracy cannot exist without a free press, and both concepts are under attack by Republican US House Candidate Greg Gianforte … These are not things we can continue to brush off.”…The Missoulian’s editorial board wrote: “Gianforte committed an act of terrible judgment that, if it doesn’t land him in jail, also shouldn’t land him in the US House of Representatives.”

Here’s one eyewitness account via CNN:

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