WASHINGTON (AFP) - A Montana Republican running for a US House of Representatives seat was charged with assaulting a reporter hours before polls opened on Thursday (May 25) for a special election that could test President Donald Trump’s political clout.
The incident on Wednesday roiled a tightening race in the Republican-leaning state, where a Democratic political novice aims to pull off a victory in a contest seen as a bellwether for next year’s US congressional elections.
It was not clear what effect the assault charge against Republican technology executive Greg Gianforte would have on the Montana race, where 37 per cent of the 699,207 registered voters had already submitted absentee ballots, according to state election officials.
Polls are slated to close at 8pm (10am on Friday, Singapore time).
Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault after Ben Jacobs, a political correspondent for the US edition of the Guardian newspaper, said the candidate “body-slammed” him during a campaign event in Bozeman.
Republican lawmakers criticised Gianforte but stopped short of asking him to withdraw from the race.
“Yeah, I think he should apologise,” US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan told a regular news briefing. “There’s no call for this, no matter what, under any circumstance.”
Ryan said it was up to Montana voters to pick their representative and he would not attempt to block Gianforte from joining Congress if he wins the election.
Republican US Senator Steve Daines from Montana said in a tweet that Gianforte “needs to apologise.”
Jacobs was trying to ask Gianforte about health care, according to an audio tape captured by the British newspaper’s correspondent.
Fox News Channel reporter Alicia Acuna, who was preparing to interview Gianforte at the time, said the candidate “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him to the ground.”
Acuna, her field producer and photographer then “watched in disbelief as Gianforte began punching the reporter, she wrote on the Fox News website.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys,” Gianforte can be heard saying in the audio tape. “The last guy who came here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here.” Jacobs was taken to the hospital and later released, media reports said.
Gianforte was favoured in a state where his party has held the lone House seat for two decades and where fellow Republican Trump won by more than 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.
‘ALL JUST PROPAGANDA’
A steady stream of people flowed into Lewis and Clark Library polling place in Helena, Montana, to vote on Thursday afternoon.
Nathaniel Trumper, who voted for Gianforte, said he did not trust the published accounts of the alleged assault. “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,” Trumper said as he was leaving the polling place.
Gianforte, who cancelled interviews scheduled for Thursday on NBC’s Meet The Press and Fox News, faces Democrat Rob Quist, a banjo-playing folk singer and first-time candidate, to fill the seat vacated when Trump named Ryan Zinke as secretary of the interior. Quist declined to comment on the incident.
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.” Gianforte has until June 7 to appear in a county court. He faces a US$500 (S$700) fine and six months in jail if convicted, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office said.
Three local newspapers have since withdrawn their endorsements for Gianforte.
At a diner in Helena, Montana, some customers expressed dismay over the incident. “If somebody can’t control their temper any better than that, I don’t think they should be in the Congress at all,” said Verna Poore, a Quist supporter, as she ate at Steve’s Cafe.
If Gianforte wins the election: “I don’t think I’d feel real good about it,” said another customer, Richard House, who declined to say whom he voted for.
According to the audio tape, Jacobs’ encounter with Gianforte turned violent when he tried to ask the candidate if he supported a Republican health-care overhaul Bill after the Congressional Budget Office found the measure would cause 23 million Americans to lose their medical insurance coverage by 2026.
Gianforte campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said in a statement that Jacobs declined to lower his recorder when asked.
“Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.
“It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behaviour from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ,” the statement said.
Acuna disputed the statement. “At no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte,” she wrote.