BOZEMAN, Montana (Reuters) - Montana Republican Greg Gianforte narrowly beat a political novice to win a seat in the US House of Representatives on Thursday (May 25), barely 24 hours after he was charged with assaulting a reporter.
A race that was expected to be a test of President Donald Trump's political clout ahead of next year's US congressional elections was jolted by the charge against Gianforte, a wealthy technology executive who had urged voters to send him to Congress to help fellow Republican Trump.
CNN projected Gianforte would win. With about 75 per cent of the vote counted, he led Democrat Rob Quist, a banjo player and first-time candidate, by about 50 per cent to 44 per cent.
Quist had focused his campaign on criticism of the Republican effort to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
Gianforte prevailed despite being charged on Wednesday night with misdemeanor assault on Ben Jacobs, a political correspondent for the US edition of the Guardian newspaper, who said the candidate "body-slammed" him during a campaign event in Bozeman.
The incident occurred as Jacobs tried to ask Gianforte about healthcare, according to an audio tape. Fox News Channel reporter Alicia Acuna, who was preparing to interview Gianforte, said the candidate "grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him to the ground."
Afterward, three state newspapers rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte. Some Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, suggested he apologise.
But it was unclear if the incident had an impact on the vote. More than a third of the state's registered voters had already submitted ballots before it happened, state election officials said, and some Gianforte supporters shrugged off the charges or said they did not believe published accounts.
"I feel like, it's all just propaganda, you know what I mean, it's hard for me to believe anything the media tells me,"said Nathaniel Trumper, who cast a vote for Gianforte at a polling place in Helena.
Gianforte's victory is a boost for Republicans, who are worried Trump's political stumbles and the unpopularity of the healthcare bill passed by the House will hurt their chances to hold a 24-seat House majority in next year's elections.
But the close margin of the race in Republican-leaning Montana will be encouraging to Democrats, who feel they have a better chance in next month's hotly contested special House election in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.
Gianforte had been favoured to win in Montana, where his party has held the lone House seat for two decades and where Trump won by more than 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.
The race for a seat vacated when Trump named Ryan Zinke as secretary of the interior had grown closer in the last week, however, as Quist focused on criticism of the House healthcare bill.
Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence recorded robocalls to voters on Gianforte's behalf, and Republican groups poured millions into ads criticising Quist for property tax liens and unpaid debts, which Quist said stemmed from a botched gallbladder surgery.
Quist, who raised more than US$6 million for his upstart bid, said the experience gave him insight into the economic struggles some people face. He campaigned last weekend with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who won the state's 2016 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton.
Gianforte could face additional, more serious charges once prosecutors review the evidence, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert told Reuters.
Gianforte has two weeks to enter a plea to the misdemeanor citation issued by the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office, according to Lambert, who said he would likely review the case before then to decide whether it should be treated as a felony offence, which would supersede the current charge.
"There's always the possibility that when we get the case and the details, that we might look differently at the charging decision," Lambert said.
Gianforte's campaign did not deny Jacobs' allegation but countered in its own statement that the reporter provoked an altercation by barging into the candidate's office, shoving a recording device in his face and "asking badgering questions."