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Why the GOP candidate who “body-slammed” a reporter might still win a House seat

The ballots are in the mail.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

You might think that the moment Greg Gianforte, the Republican running for Montana’s open House seat, allegedly “body-slammed” a reporter, his campaign was doomed. An alleged assault the day before an election? What could be worse?

But Gianforte could very well still be elected to Congress, even as he faces misdemeanor charges for the alleged assault. If he prevails in Thursday night’s election, he can thank Montana’s affinity for mail-in ballots.

Gianforte has been considered the slight favorite in his race against Democratic folk singer Rob Quist — Cook Political Report has the race rated as Lean Republican. But he came with some baggage: a non-native multimillionaire squaring off against the local populist and celebrity. Some anti-Trump, anti-Republican health care bill backlash was a further complication for the GOP candidate.

Then he allegedly assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on Wednesday night and local authorities charged him with misdemeanor assault — the day before the election. Democrats were quickly up with a digital ad airing audio of the incident.

The race was close going in — but the political silver lining for Gianforte is that many Montana voters, maybe most them, had already voted by the time he was charged.

Montana is unusually reliant on mail-in ballots — any voter may request and cast an absentee ballot. The state legislature earlier this year debated transitioning to a fully mail-based system for the special election, though that effort fell short.

Seasoned political analysts projected that two-thirds or more of the votes had already been cast by the time the news of Gianforte’s alleged assault broke.

The Billings Gazette reported Wednesday that about 47 percent of absentee ballots in Yellowstone County, the most populous county in the state, had already been returned.

If there is a problem for Gianforte, it’s this point made by the New York Times’s Nate Cohn: The alleged assault could motivate voters who were less likely to vote to get to the polls on Thursday and make sure he doesn’t get the seat.

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