On the eve of Montana's special election, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte allegedly assaulted Guardian political reporter Ben Jacobs at a campaign event in Bozeman. An audio recording of the incident, along with witness accounts from several Fox News journalists who were present at the event, paint a damning picture for Gianforte. By Thursday morning, he had been charged by local police with misdemeanor assault, and three major Montana newspapers had rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte.
Some have already begun to speculate that the incident will cost Gianforte an election that, by all accounts, Republicans should have run away with, while others think a handful of factors indicate that the violent outburst could have little effect on the race.
That the race was this close in the first place, though, has little to do with Gianforte and everything to do with the politics of his opponent, country-folk singer Rob Quist.
Quist has run in red Montana as an unabashed progressive and Bernie Sanders-style populist Democrat. These politics have presented Quist with a new way to be competitive: Whereas, in the most prominent special election so far this year, the Democratic candidate focused on attacking President Donald Trump, Quist is instead centering his campaign on his populist progressive message. That he's been able to draw close in the polls and stands a shot at winning suggests Quist's tack is working, laying a model for other Democrats around the country trying to compete in red states and districts.
Several weeks ago Gianforte was heavily favored to win Montana's at-large district, where Trump won by more than 20 points and where former-Representative-turned-Interior-Secretary Ryan Zinke handily won reelection by 16 points.
But in the final week before the election — long before Gianforte had been accused of attacking anyone — the race narrowed considerably, with Quist just 2 to 4 points behind Gianforte in some internal polling.
Some outlets attributed the closing gap to the Trump administration's terrible week of rolling crises and revelations that hurt Gianforte by proxy. But on the ground in Montana, the Quist has been waging a campaign that is less focused on Trump and more focused on a populist progressive agenda.
From the beginning of his campaign Quist focused his message on economic populism, making a case for a single payer health care system and arguing that the Republican health care plan is "is merely a tax break for the super-rich."
In the final stretch of the campaign Quist toured the state with former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) railing against the "billionaire class."
"You want to hear a crazy radical idea that Rob has? This is really a radical idea. We should have a government that represents all of us, not just the billionaire class," Sanders told a crowd at the local civic center in Butte, Montana.
In a rally on Monday, right after what was arguably Trump's worst week in office, Quist reportedly did not even mention the president's name focusing instead on issues he felt affected Montana voters more directly.
In fact, in the moment when Gianforte allegedly assaulted Jacobs, he had been trying to avoid a question about the AHCA. Gianforte had previously dodged questions about the AHCA saying he would wait until the final score came out from the Congressional Budget Office before making a decision. But privately, he reportedly told a group of donors that he was relieved the bill had passed the House.
On Wednesday, the CBO released their final score on the bill, with just hours until the polls opened across Montana. Jacobs was pressing Gianforte on his promise to make a decision following the vote when Gianforte grew frustrated and allegedly slammed Jacobs to the ground, breaking the reporter's glasses.
If Quist manages to beat Gianforte on Thursday, it will be because his populist progressive agenda brought him within striking distance.