HELENA, Mont. (AP) – U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte defeated Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams in a Montana U.S. House race that wasn’t decided until Wednesday morning, a win that gives the Republican incumbent his first full term after overcoming renewed attention on his attack against a reporter last year.
Gianforte, 57, won by campaigning as a strident supporter of President Donald Trump’s agenda. But he will be in the minority party after the Democrats won control of the House in Tuesday’s election and are expected to act as a check to Trump.
This was Gianforte’s third statewide election in two years. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016 against incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock, a race in which he spent more than $5 million of his own money. This time, he loaned his campaign $1 million to keep pace as Williams benefited from a fundraising surge in the final months of the race.
Last May, Gianforte was elected to fill the U.S. House vacancy that opened when Ryan Zinke resigned to become Trump’s Interior Department secretary. The day before that special election, he body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground when the reporter tried to ask him a question at a campaign event. Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
Gianforte has tried to avoid the issue during his campaign, repeatedly saying that he took responsibility and moved on. But Trump thrust the issue back in the spotlight last month during a rally in Missoula.
“Any guy that can do a body-slam – he’s my kind of guy,” Trump said.
Williams released an ad with an audio recording of the attack on the same day as Trump’s comments. Then, about two weeks before the election, Jacobs’ lawyer accused Gianforte of lying about the assault and misleading the media about the settlement between the congressman and the reporter.
Attorney Geoffrey Genth sent a cease-and-desist letter threatening to cancel Jacobs’ deal not to sue Gianforte if the congressman didn’t stop referencing his initial statement to police that Jacobs attacked first and wrongly saying the deal was confidential.
But in the end, reminding voters about the attack didn’t hurt Gianforte at the polls.
Montana voters said health care and the economy were the most important issues the nation was facing, according to an Associated Press survey.
Those issues mirrored what the candidates focused on in their campaigns: Williams touted improving access to health care, while Gianforte highlighted the Republican tax cuts helping boost the economy.
Gianforte supporter Laura Fix, 57, said the main issue motivating her to vote was one the Republican campaigned on – tax cuts passed by the GOP-led Congress.
“Those tax cuts are important, and I hope there’s more on the way,” she said.
Gianforte’s entry into politics came after a career as a successful technology entrepreneur who sold his software company to Oracle in 2011 for $1.8 billion.
Williams, 57, served three terms in the Montana House of Representatives from 2011 to 2015. Before she decided to challenge Gianforte, she was associate director of the Western Landowners Alliance and previously worked for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
She was one of a record number of women running for office across the U.S. this year. Williams won the five-way Democratic primary in June by defeating two male candidates who had outraised and outspent her.
She had sought to become the first Montana woman elected to Congress since Jeannette Rankin, who became the first female U.S. representative in 1916 and was elected again in 1940. To mark the symbolism of her campaign, Williams wore a pin on election night that was from Rankin’s 1916 campaign.
Republicans have held Montana’s only U.S. House seat since 1997, when former Democratic Rep. Pat Williams left office. Since then, no Democrat has won more than 46 percent of the vote in a House race.