Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena, classified Wednesday's alleged assault by Greg Gianforte against a national reporter as “major."
Gianforte, a Republican, is running against Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks for Montana's lone U.S. House seat, left vacant when President Donald Trump appointed Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary.
On the night before the election, the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office found probable cause to cite Gianforte for misdemeanor assault for an attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who was in Bozeman and trying to interview the candidate. Jacobs wrote in a tweet that Gianforte had "body slammed me and broke my glasses."
Though 37 percent of registered voters have already returned absentee ballots, there will “still be plenty of people voting on Election Day,” Johnson said.
Turnout in special elections is typically low, and with this vote on the Thursday before Memorial Day, many have predicted low numbers at the polls.
Johnson said he couldn’t think of any precedent for what happened Wednesday night a little over 24 hours before voting ends in the first U.S. House special election Montana has held since the 1960s. The 85-day campaign has been unlike any seen in the state, drawing more spending during a very compressed cycle than the November race for the seat.
Those who cast early absentee ballots tend to strongly support a candidate or party, Johnson said, meaning many who haven’t voted yet could still be undecided — either about which candidate to support or about voting at all.
“If you’re on the fence about voting, this might drive interest to go vote,” he said.
Of the apparently violent nature of the event, Johnson said, "Some voters will view this as a character issue that could hurt Gianforte at the polls.”
Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna, who was in the room and saw what happened, reported Wednesday evening that "Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him" and "then began punching the man."
Before the citation was announced, the timing of information released by the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office played an uncertain role in how things could play out Thursday. At a press conference held around 8 p.m., Sheriff Brian Gootkin said law enforcement was still conducting an investigator and talking to witnesses. By 10:45 p.m. the citation was issued. Gianforte must appear in Gallatin County Justice Court before June 7 and would face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500 if convicted.
“A lot of facts are not known yet,” Johnson said before the citation was announced. “It will certainly be a challenge for the Gianforte campaign. It will be discussed. We have to see if new information comes out — if any further information is available to voters before they start voting tomorrow.”