Amid Assault Charges, Republican Gianforte Wins Montana's House Seat

May 26, 2017
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just 24 hours after being charged with misdemeanor assault for slamming a reporter to the floor, Greg Gianforte has won a special congressional election in Montana. In his victory speech, Gianforte pledged to go to Washington to work on President Trump's agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG GIANFORTE: Montanans said, we're going to drain the swamp.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: But his remarks last night also included an apology.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIANFORTE: Last night, I made a mistake, and I took an action that I can't take back. And I'm not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did. And for that, I'm sorry.

(APPLAUSE)

GIANFORTE: Please...

MARTIN: That's Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte after he defeated Democrat Rob Quist in a special election in Montana. NPR's Don Gonyea was in that ballroom in Bozeman last night where the speech happened. He joins us now.

Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So kind of unusual to have to include in your acceptance speech an apology for beating someone up. Did you suspect that this was coming, this apology?

GONYEA: We didn't know it was coming. You knew it was possible, especially after Speaker Ryan had told him that he should apologize during a press conference on the Hill yesterday. It's interesting, though, that Gianforte's remarks directly contradict the statement his campaign put out a day early, blaming the entire episode on the reporter, Ben Jacobs. That statement said, quote, "it's unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene." So I think it's worth hearing just a little of the audiotape Jacobs made of that encounter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIANFORTE: Just...

(SOUNDBITE OF SHUFFLING)

GIANFORTE: I'm sick and tired of you guys.

BEN JACOBS: Jesus Christ.

GIANFORTE: The last guy that came in here - you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here.

JACOBS: Jesus...

GONYEA: OK. So that's Gianforte shouting. Now compare that to last night, his tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIANFORTE: I should not have treated that reporter that way. And for that, I'm sorry, Mr. Ben Jacobs.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED GIANFORTE SUPPORTER: You're a good man, Greg.

GONYEA: He then continued that he'd learned from this, beginning with taking responsibility.

MARTIN: So what was the room like? I mean, as people heard this apology, how did they respond?

GONYEA: You know, all day, I'd been hearing from Gianforte supporters at polling places around the state that the reporter deserved it or that he'd asked for it. And last night at the victory party, at first, some people in the room didn't want to hear the apology. You could hear some murmurs in the crowd.

MARTIN: Yeah, even some laughs...

GONYEA: But ultimately...

MARTIN: ...I thought I heard.

GONYEA: Yeah. And laughter, exactly. Ultimately, though, people seemed glad to hear it. Here's an exchange I had with business owners Ron and Deanna Marshall.

RON MARSHALL: For him, it's kind of, take a step back and just realize where you're at.

DEANNA MARSHALL: He'll be fine.

R. MARSHALL: He'll be fine.

D. MARSHALL: I think he's going to learn to control himself a little bit better. I think he knows the situation, and I think he's going to do a great job. I really do.

GONYEA: It's worth pointing out, Rachel, that Gianforte still hasn't responded to Jacobs' question - what is his position on the GOP health bill now that it's gotten a pretty tough score from the Congressional Budget Office?

MARTIN: So what about the other side, Democrats in Montana who were hoping for a different outcome? How are they viewing the apology even?

GONYEA: Well, the Democrat Rob Quist conceded last night, but he did not mention the apology or the incident. He said he knows Montanans will hold Gianforte accountable. Meanwhile, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put out a statement saying there's a taint on the election because of the assault.

MARTIN: So this was one of a handful of special elections happening this year where the entire political world is watching closely to extrapolate any meaning (laughter) beyond any given district. What does this result in Montana tell us in a larger picture, if anything?

GONYEA: Yeah, you have to be careful not to read too much into it. But despite President Trump's falling poll numbers nationally, in a state with lots of rural voters, a Republican can still win by embracing the president. Democrats say the result, while not the one they wanted, maybe gives them some hope because Trump won Montana by a far larger margin than Gianforte did.

MARTIN: NPR's Don Gonyea in Bozeman, Mont. Hey, thanks, Don.

GONYEA: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.