Republicans blast Montana candidate charged with assaulting reporter

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Republican lawmakers are criticizing their party’s congressional candidate in Montana after he was charged Wednesday with assaulting a reporter — one day before his special election for a House seat.

GOP lawmakers leaving their weekly policy meeting could be overheard discussing the Greg Gianforte assault with each other.

Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) called Gianforte’s behavior “nonsense.”

“We’re a civil society,” he said. “People shouldn’t be acting like that.”

Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said that whatever happened “sounds horrendous.”

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also criticized Gianforte, but did not call on him to drop out.

And the Speaker deflected a question about whether House Republicans would accept Gianforte as a member of the GOP conference if the Montana software executive wins his race.

“I’m going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative,” Ryan said. “That’s not our choice; that’s the people of Montana who choose that.”

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) echoed the Speaker’s comments: “He’s our candidate and the election’s today, and we’ll see what happens. The bottom line is this should be a civil discourse and we just simply don’t have all the facts.”

Audio of the confrontation suggests Gianforte grew angry after Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs put his recorder close to the candidate’s face while asking questions about the House GOP healthcare bill.

Jacobs said Gianforte “body slammed” him and broke his glasses. A Fox reporter who witnessed the altercation said Gianforte placed his hands around Jacobs’s neck and also said that the candidate punched the reporter.

Gianforte’s campaign said Jacobs started the confrontation, that the “liberal journalist” entered the room without permission and “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face and began asking badgering questions.”

After an investigation late Wednesday night, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin issued a statement that Gianforte had been charged with a misdemeanor assault.

The race between Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist has drawn national attention, with both parties looking for evidence on whether President Trump is hurting GOP candidates across the country.

If Gianforte wins the special election, he’d have to get used to reporters asking questions at every turn.

“If you‘re going to turn volcanic over a question about the [Congressional Budget Office], Congress probably isn’t the right job for you,” a GOP strategist told The Hill.

Capitol Hill is a uniquely accessible place for reporters, who have free roam of hallways around the House and Senate floors and just about anywhere lawmakers move about the complex.

It’s typical for reporters to wait outside the House floor and even bathrooms to tail particular lawmakers. Journalists will often simply walk up to lawmakers, introduce themselves and start asking questions on behalf of the public.

Several Montana newspapers took back their endorsements of Gianforte after Wednesday night’s charges, but it is unclear if it will be a deciding factor in the race.

Many Montanans vote by mail, and almost three-quarters of mail ballots have already been received.

“The race is probably baked in at this point,” a GOP strategist said. “It’s going to be close so if Republicans don’t turn out and Democrats do, it could turn a race that probably lands inside the margin into a nailbiter.”

The strategist added that Gianforte and his campaign’s sole focus on Thursday should be making sure his base turns out and heads to the ballot box.

Other Republican strategists say Gianforte’s campaign is taking the best approach possible by doubling down and putting his head down until the storm passes, though noting that he will later need to apologize once the results come in regardless of the outcome.

Gainforte canceled appearances on two cable news networks on Thursday.

“They’ve decided to double-down on their version of the story and try to hunker down and ride out the storm,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “From a communications perspective, that might be the right way to go actually.”

“Right now, this is about political survival. It’s unfortunate that that’s how it has to play out, but the goal here is still to win the election.”

Ryan was one of several Washington lawmakers calling on Gianforte to apologize.

“I think he should apologize. I do not think this is acceptable behavior,” Ryan said.

Gianforte and Quist are battling for the seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Polls close at 10 p.m. EST.

Scott Wong contributed.

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