Greg Gianforte's assault charge puts Republicans in a lose-lose situation in Montana

Story highlights

  • Before Gianforte's choke-slam on Jacobs, the race had been tightening due to the corroding national environment for Republicans
  • Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that Gianforte should apologize

Washington (CNN)Greg Gianforte's choke-slam of reporter Ben Jacobs on Wednesday night -- and the ensuing assault charge -- might not cost him a victory in today's Montana special election. But even if Gianforte wins, Republicans will face a major decision on whether or not to seat him.

What's beyond debate is that, according to Jacobs and multiple eyewitnesses, Gianforte grabbed the reporter by the throat and threw him to the ground -- screaming "sick and tired of you guys ... get the hell out of here."
While Gianforte's campaign put out a statement -- ludicrous on its face -- blaming Jacobs for his "aggressive" reporting tactics, the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office decided that the evidence was clear, charging the Montana Republican nominee with misdemeanor assault.
    It's totally possible -- despite the fact that Gianforte's assault charge is splashed across the front pages of Montana's newspapers and leading many national newscasts this morning -- that he still wins the election today.
    Montana is typically a Republican state at the federal level; President Donald Trump carried the state by 20 points in 2016. (Montana has only one House district, so today's race will decide the representative for the whole state.) It is also a state where you can vote by mail -- and, according to figures from the secretary of state, more than 250,000 ballots had already been returned as of Tuesday. That's roughly seven in 10 of all ballots election officials expect to be cast. (In the 2016 general election, just north of 507,000 votes were cast.)
    At this point, however, a Gianforte loss -- which would have been considered a total disaster by national Republicans as recently as 24 hours ago -- might wind up being the best possible outcome for the party.
    Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that Gianforte should apologize. But he rejected the idea that he or Republican leadership would intervene if Gianforte wins. "I am going to let the people of Monana decide who they want to represent them," said Ryan.
    National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers sounded even more conciliatory. "From what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes," he said.
    If Gianforte loses, he -- and the story -- disappear. Republicans would immediately blame his last-minute implosion for the defeat, allowing them to avoid the idea that the race should be properly read as a national referendum on Trump and the recently-passed American Health Care Act. (Worth noting: Before Gianforte's choke-slam on Jacobs, the race had been tightening due to the corroding national environment for Republicans.)
    Now, consider what happens if Gianforte wins. Some time between now and June 7, he will have to appear in court to face the assault charge. And based on the audio provided by Jacobs as well as the eyewitness reports from a Fox News crew, it's hard to see how he doesn't get convicted. (Nota bene: I am not a lawyer.)
    What do Republicans do then? Every member of leadership will be asked, daily, whether seating Gianforte represents a willingness to look the other way. And for a party already struggling with branding issues, that's not the sort of story House Republicans need bouncing around Washington.
    If they don't seat Gianforte, then what? Can they force him to resign? And would that mean -- as I suspect it would -- another special election where the Democratic nominee, Rob Quist, would almost certainly run and might well start as the front-runner due to the controversy surrounding Gianforte?
    Gianforte losing is a bad story for national Republicans. Gianforte winning might well be a worse one.