MISSOULA, MT - MAY 24:  Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte talks with supporters during a campaign meet and greet at Lambros Real Estate on May 24, 2017 in Missoula, Montana.  Greg Gianforte is campaigning throughout Montana ahead of a May 25 special election to fill Montana's single congressional seat. Gianforte is in a tight race against democrat Rob Quist.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Candidate charged with assaulting reporter
02:02 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

A week ago today, Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter named Ben Jacobs who was asking the GOP nominee whether or not he supported the American Health Care Act. The following day, Gianforte beat Democrat Rob Quist to claims the state’s lone congressional district. The Gianforte body-slam has receded somewhat as a national story but I wondered how big a deal it still was in Montana. I reached out to Darrell Ehrlick, the editor of the Billings Gazette and a Montana native, for some perspective. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: It’s been a week since Greg Gianforte body-slammed Ben Jacobs. What’s the reaction been in the state – and has that reaction changed in any way since Gianforte won the election last Thursday?

Ehrlick: Overwhelming in some cases. Within the first 72 hours after the election, we saw letters to the editor nearly triple – and we had been getting a pretty healthy flow of letters leading up to the election. We experienced a phenomenon on Friday (the day after) that I have never seen previously: At The Gazette, we had people calling in from across the country just urging us to take a certain action, or telling us what they were going to do about the election. The action ranged from calling on Gianforte to immediately resign, recall petitions ,and protests [all the way] to a few wanting to know how they could donate to his re-election campaign. I guess it kind of makes sense. Who are you really going to call? There’s no central clearing house for general outrage. People were genuinely distressed or engaged, and they needed an outlet. Many took to social media, but some needed to register their feelings with another human. The responses ranged from one person in Washington who blamed The Gazette for endorsing him in the first place; another man from Kansas who said if he did ever make it up to Montana he was going to give us a swift kick because, in his words, we were all supposed to be Marlboro men, not sissies. Well, that wasn’t exactly the word, but you get the idea.

Cillizza: There was speculation online in the immediate aftermath of the incident that it might actually help Gianforte because of how little people like the media? Any evidence that was true?

Ehrlick: Possibly. I think any lift it will give to him will be momentary. The incident itself, coupled with the audio seem pretty hard to live down. Keep in mind, Howard Dean just bellowed and it was the end of him, so I have to believe the altercation will be a political albatross.

But, the returns did show something interesting. Same-day voting in counties that tend to sway toward one party or another swung harder toward their tendencies. So that means in counties where conservatives typically do well, they tended to do even better in same-day voting, where you have to believe that most voters were well aware of the now-infamous scuffle. The animus against the media is definitely there – we had several of our staff members who encountered voters on Election Day who said to our staff something about not shoving a microphone in their face, half-jokingly, of course. One of our reporters was told that if he shoved a microphone in her face, she’d shoot. It didn’t stop our reporter from asking questions, and she never brandished a gun.

Cillizza: What, if anything has Gianforte done about the incident since issuing his apology during his victory speech? What about the people around him?

Ehrlick: Virtually nothing. I have never heard of a political candidate winning, coming into a room, making a speech and then leave without glad-handing and celebrating, but that’s what Gianforte did. He has said nothing, beyond his speech. But, there’s been plenty of coverage of it in the Montana press, television and nationally.

One of the other curious angles is that directly after the incident, the Gianforte campaign issued that statement in which it tried to say Jacobs had made the first move and he was a “liberal journalist.” Since then, the campaign’s versions of the event has widely been discredited. Yet, the campaign has never backed away from it or clarified it.

Cillizza: How have the Gazette and other newspapers and TV stations covered both Gianforte and the charge against him since last Thursday’s election? How big a story is it still in Montana?

Ehrlick: It continues to be the biggest story and probably will be for a while. There are so many questions and speculation. Will he have any substantive penalties imposed? Will the House seat him? What will his committee assignments be? Will he be snubbed in Washington, D.C.? We have a lot of follow-up to do. We have had a pretty steady stream of reporting, partly because what happened a week ago was so beyond the scope of normal. We’ve had a lot of questions of our own. And, if we didn’t have the questions, our readers sure did.

For Montana media, there are two storylines – first, what happens to Gianforte when he goes to Washington, D.C.. Then there is one which many outside the state will never see or even care about. But for Montanans, it’s probably the most interesting one: What happens to the seat in the future, and will he be able to accomplish anything having this as a never-ending cloud over him?

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The long term impact on Gianforte’s political future of this incident will be ___________.” Now, explain.

Ehrlick: Career suicide. Regardless of where folks stand on whether Gianforte was provoked or justified, he was clearly out of control on the audio. He did it to himself. He has about 18 months to serve, and has already become the momentary poster child for the worst of our politics. In the governor’s race in November, he struggled with image; in the primaries, he only got 76 percent against a team of Republicans that spent next to nothing and got one out of every four votes. He wasn’t very likable then, and I’d say he’s not done a lot to change that image. Plus now, every time an opponent needs a little push, you can bet they’ll fire up the recording that ends with a raging Gianforte yelling to a beat-up reporter to get the hell out. I would bet the state leaders are already planning a “jettison” strategy so that they don’t have to shell out money to defend their party against one of the most damning audio clips of all time for a politician.