WASHINGTON — House Republicans stuck with their candidate in Montana's special House race Thursday even though he was charged with misdemeanor assault after allegedly slamming a reporter to the ground.
Speaker Paul Ryan said Greg Gianforte should apologize, but the GOP leader did not disavow Gianforte's candidacy or call on him to drop out. And Ryan indicated that Gianforte, a wealthy tech company founder, would be welcome in the House Republican conference if he wins what appeared to be a tight race against Democrat Rob Quist.
"If he wins, he has been chosen by the Montana, the people of Montana," said Ryan, R-Wis. "I'm going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative. That's not our choice. That's the people of Montana who choose that."
"I do not think this is acceptable behavior, but the choice will be made by the people of Montana," Ryan added.
Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, who chairs the House GOP campaign committee, said: "From what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes."
"Today's special election is bigger than any one person; it's about the views of all Montanans," Stivers added. "They deserve to have their voices heard in Washington."
It was unclear what impact the late-breaking news would have on the election, especially since a significant portion of voters already had cast early ballots. Montana is a Republican-friendly state where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a wide margin.
Gianforte and Quist, a cowboy-hat-wearing musician, are competing for the state's sole House seat, left vacant when Trump appointed GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke to serve as Interior secretary. Gianforte has strongly embraced Trump throughout the campaign, and the race has been watched closely for signs of whether Democrats can make inroads in GOP areas ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Wednesday's incident occurred at a Gianforte campaign event in Bozeman, Mont., when Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, approached Gianforte to ask him about a new Congressional Budget Office analysis of House-passed health care legislation. It was a moment when Gianforte was not taking media questions, and the candidate quickly became enraged and threw Jacobs to the ground, punching him and breaking his glasses, according to audio of the event and witness accounts.
Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault and would face a maximum $500 fine or six months in jail if convicted. The Gianforte campaign defended its candidate in a statement describing Jacobs as a "liberal journalist" who was asking "badgering questions" and displaying "aggressive behavior."
The charges themselves or even a conviction would not prevent Gianforte from serving in the House. The chamber's rules say winning candidates can be seated as long as they meet the constitutional requirements of age, residence and citizenship.
Democrats condemned Gianforte and called on Republicans to denounce him. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California criticized Gianforte as "a wannabe Trump."
"And we've really got to say, 'come on, behave, behave,'" Pelosi added. "That was outrageous."
Reactions were mixed from rank-and-file House Republicans who exited a closed-door conference meeting Thursday morning on unrelated issues. Similar to when they're asked about the latest controversial pronouncement or action by Trump, most lawmakers were reluctant to discuss the issue at all, with many saying they didn't know enough about it to comment.
A few others offered a variety of views.
Asked if assaulting a reporter is appropriate behavior, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., replied: "Of course not. It's not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it."
Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said that "You don't want to have any violence out there. Period. You want civility and you want to make sure everyone's safe."
Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, offered perhaps the most forthright take on the political ramifications of the incident when he said of Gianforte: "I'm not sure whether it will hurt him or help him."
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.