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It’s election day in Montana, and Gianforte’s assault charge might not even matter

It’s election day in Montana after a wild 24 hours, with voters deciding who will fill the House seat vacated when Republican Ryan Zinke left to head the Interior Department under President Trump. The contest Thursday has drawn nationwide attention and an extraordinary amount of money — and that was before the GOP front-runner was accused of attacking a national political reporter.

The events have turned the contest into one of the strangest in memory.

Who’s running?

Democrat Rob Quist, 69, a bluegrass musician and political neophyte, is facing Republican Greg Gianforte, 56, who made a fortune when he sold his Bozeman-based high-tech firm to Oracle for nearly $2 billion. Gianforte ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016 and is sinking more of his wealth into the congressional contest.

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Who’s favored?

The race has been seen as Gianforte’s to lose. Republicans have held Montana’s sole congressional seat since 1994, and off-year elections, with their lower turnout, tend to favor the GOP here. But Quist has raised an enormous sum — more than $6 million — mostly from out-of-state activists stirred by opposition to Trump, and Democrats believe the energy on their side could yield an upset.

Republican Greg Gianforte has been the favorite in Montana's special election.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

What about news reports of that attack on a journalist?

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Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault Wednesday night after Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, said he was body-slammed by the candidate when he sought to question him at an election-eve event in Bozeman. A spokesman for Gianforte accused Jacobs of instigating the tussle. But in audio posted on the Guardian website, a loud crash can be heard along with Gianforte’s voice angrily scolding Jacobs.

A Fox News reporter who witnessed the incident wrote that “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.” She also noted that “at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”

Two of Montana’s largest newspapers, the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian, withdrew their endorsements of Gianforte on Wednesday night after the incident.

What is the political fallout likely to be?

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That’s unclear. More than 250,000 absentee ballots had already been cast by Wednesday, which could end up amounting to well over half the total. That will certainly minimize the impact.

Should the race be seen as a judgment on Trump’s performance?

Neither side has sought to make the contest an explicit referendum on Trump. It is much more likely to turn on the candidates’ personalities, their campaign styles, personal histories and the assault charges lodged against Gianforte.

That said, there is no question Trump has spurred engagement on the Democratic side, and his surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence and son Donald Jr., have appeared on behalf of Gianforte. Pence and Trump were also heard on election-eve robocalls urging Republicans to the polls.

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So national issues will play no part?

Actually, the House-passed healthcare overhaul bill has become a central focus of the campaign. Quist has repeatedly assailed the legislation, saying it would be devastating to Montana and its heavily rural population. Gianforte has praised the bill as a first step toward repealing and replacing the existing national healthcare law but has not endorsed specifics of the legislation.

How does the race fit in the larger political scheme?

Democrats need 24 seats to take control of the House. A victory in Montana would move them a step closer and offer a big boost in terms of the party’s fundraising and the quality of candidates they recruit for the 2018 midterm election. Republicans will be happy just to avoid a loss in a state Trump carried in November by more than 20 percentage points.

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What’s with the weird Thursday election day?

When Zinke vacated the seat, it was up to Montana’s governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, to set the vote for his replacement. Bullock said he wanted the seat filled as soon as possible, so he chose May 25, the first date allowable under state law, which happens to be a Thursday.

What’s the makeup of the district, geographically and such?

Trick question! Montana has an “at-large” representative, whose district spans the entire state. Montana used to have two House members, one from the Republican-leaning east and the other from the more Democratic-friendly western half of the state. But after the 1990 census, Montana lost its second House seat.

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When will the results be known?

The polls close at 7 p.m. Pacific time. Given that there is just the one race, the outcome should be clear within a few hours, unless, of course, the contest is too close to call. Then the winner may not be known until Friday.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

@markzbarabak

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