Greg Gianforte Republican accused of 'bodyslam' wins Montana special election

A US Republican candidate accused of assaulting a reporter was declared the projected winner of Thursday's Montana special congressional election, which had been considered a bellwether in the opening months of Donald Trump's crisis-ridden presidency.

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Montanans vote Thursday in a special election to replace a Republican who resigned to join President Donald Trump's cabinet play

Montanans vote Thursday in a special election to replace a Republican who resigned to join President Donald Trump's cabinet

(GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP)
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A US Republican candidate accused of assaulting a reporter was declared the projected winner of Thursday's Montana special congressional election, which had been considered a bellwether in the opening months of Donald Trump's crisis-ridden presidency.

Greg Gianforte -- a wealthy businessman who had been expected to comfortably win the contest until recent weeks -- emerged the projected victor despite Wednesday's clash, taking 50.4 percent of the votes against his Democratic opponent's 43.8 percent, according to CNN, with 84 percent of the votes tallied.

He faces up to six months in county jail and a $500 fine if convicted of misdemeanor assault against a journalist from the British newspaper The Guardian.

In his victory speech Gianforte apologized to the reporter, telling a cheering crowd of supporters he had "learned a lesson."

"Last night I made a mistake. And I took an action that I can't take back," he said. "I should not have treated that reporter that way. And for that I am sorry."

"Rest assured our work is just beginning. But it does begin with me taking responsibility for my own actions."

The Wednesday clash, caught on an audio recording, had mushroomed into a major headache for Trump's party as Montanans trooped to the polls to replace a Republican who vacated the seat to join the president's cabinet.

In accepting his projected win over his rival -- 69-year-old cowboy-poet Rob Quist -- Gianforte vowed to be his state's "strong voice back in Washington DC."

"Montana sent a strong message tonight that we want a congressman who will work with President Trump to make America and Montana great again."

Republicans now find themselves with an incoming member of Congress forced to appear in county court in coming weeks -- a predicament Democrats will no doubt exploit as an example of the GOP's decay.

Following Wednesday's incident the state's three main newspapers had rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte, but a majority of voters had already cast absentee ballots before the altercation, local media reported.

During the vote Democrats on the streets of Missoula expressed outrage.

"It is a little shocking to learn that someone who is trying to be our leader behaves in that way," Montana voter Rachel Pauli, 27, said as she waved anti-Gianforte signs on a bridge over the Clark Fork river.

'Wake up call'

Police were called to the scene of Wednesday's incident, at a Gianforte campaign event in the city of Bozeman, and Jacobs was taken to hospital for X-rays.

The altercation took place after Jacobs asked Gianforte about the Republican health care bill intended to replace Barack Obama's signature health reforms.

The issue has become a focal point for American voters, and Gianforte, 56, had remained non-committal about the legislation, even though he has embraced many aspects of the Trump presidency.

"Greg Gianforte just body-slammed me and broke my glasses," Jacobs tweeted before news of the incident went viral on social media.

The reporter posted an audio clip in which a loud crash is heard, and Gianforte then appears to say: "The last time you came in here you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here!"

Gianforte's campaign issued a statement offering a starkly contrasting account.

Jacobs entered the office uninvited, and "aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face, and began asking badgering questions," the campaign said, as it blamed the incident on "aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist."

Other witnesses corroborated Jacobs's version of events -- including a crew from Fox News, the most-viewed US cable news channel and a favorite of conservatives.

The state's Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, described the incident as "a wake-up call to all Montanans and Americans."

"It is unsettling on many levels that Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a journalist and then lied, refusing to take responsibility for his actions," he said in a statement.

With the race Republicans, facing a struggle to hold the House in 2018 mid-term elections, managed to avoid their first casualty in a revolt against an unpopular president.

Another special election will be held next month in Georgia, another traditional Republican stronghold, where a Democrat holds a slim lead in polls.

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