Montana's GOP candidate for a House seat is still the favourite to win after the 'body slam' heard around the world

Republican candidate Greg GianforteJustin Sullivan/Getty ImagesRepublican candidate Greg Gianforte

Montanans could very well wake up Thursday having elected a congressman who was charged with assaulting a reporter just a day before the state’s special election.

Greg Gianforte, the Republican running for Montana’s sole House seat, which was vacated in March when President Donald Trump tapped Ryan Zinke to be secretary of the interior, remained the favourite to win leading up to Thursday’s election.

But the outcome of the race may be swung after Gianforte’s physical altercation with Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who pressed him on a question about the GOP healthcare bill during a campaign event on Wednesday.

Jacobs called the police after the incident, which he described as getting “body slammed.” Witness accounts aligned with Jacobs’ version of events, and Gianforte was later charged with misdemeanour assault.

It’s unclear how Wednesday’s events might affect the outcome of the race, but 250,000 of Montana’s 699,000 registered voters have already mailed in their votes, leaving just one-third to be cast on Election day.

The Republican was leading his opponent, Rob Quist, by 15 points in one late April poll, but a Democratic poll conducted around the same time found just a 6-point gap between the candidates — and also showed that among those most motivated to vote, Gianforte and Quist were neck and neck.

News of the physical altercation made waves in Washington, where Democrats full-throatedly condemned Gianforte’s actions as an attack on the free press that should disqualify him from taking a seat in the House. Some Republicans, including Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, also criticised Gianforte, but didn’t agree that his actions should be disqualifying.

“There is no time where a physical altercation should occur,” Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Thursday, adding that he would “let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative.”

Three of Montana’s most prominent newspapers retracted their endorsements of Gianforte, calling his behaviour “terrible judgment that, if it doesn’t land him in jail, also shouldn’t land him in the US House of Representatives.”

The editorial board of the Billings Gazette wrote, “We believe that you cannot love America, love the Constitution, talk about the importance of a free press and then pummel a reporter.”

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