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Cowboys, nudists and assault charges - Montana's special election showcases new era in US politics

Two untraditional candidates highlight how difficult it has become to define what makes a Democrat or a Republican. Complicating matters, one of them has been charged with assaulting a reporter on the eve of the vote.

Voters in the US state of Montana went to the polls on Thursday for a special election that may just rival the 2016 presidential race in its wild rollercoaster to the finish. It's seen fake scandals, mudslinging, ads featuring both candidates shooting modern technology with rifles, and a literal attack on the media after Republican Greg Gianforte was charged with physically assaulting a reporter.

Despite being roughly the same size of Germany, Montana's population of only about 1 million people means the state consists of a single congressional district. With their sole representative, Ryan Zinke, tapped by the US President Donald Trump's administration to be interior secretary, Montanans have to choose between two men with no experience in elected office - Gianforte or his Democratic rival, Rob Quist.

While many media have attempted to cast the election as a referendum on Trump - reporters from the state have joined residents in disputing this narrative. While Republicans have carried the state in every presidential election since 1996, Montana's governor and one of its two senators are Democrats.

"You can't predict what we vote, we don't vote straight down [party] lines," Anne Helen Petersen said, summing up voters' views in an interview with WYNC radio. While Montanans may support traditional Republican values like small government and gun rights, they also want their public lands protected and affordable health care.

Singing cowboy vs. tech billionaire

Neither Quist nor Gianforte fit the traditional Democratic or Republican party boxes, instead, they highlight how undefinable those terms have become in 2017.

Quist is a singing cowboy and bluegrass musician well-known in his home state as a left-leaning populist who made clear that his love of affordable health care is on par with his love of gun owners' rights.

"Everyone should have a system like Medicare, where you walk in, show your card and you're covered," Quist told the local Bozeman Chronicle. He was a vocal supporter of former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who in turn made the effort to help Quist on the campaign trail.

USA Nachwahl für das Abgeordnetenhaus in Montana Rob Quist und Bernie Sanders (Getty Images/J. Sullivan)

Sanders told the Huffington Post that Quist "stands up for working people"

Sanders and Quist made their rally about Montana's issues and avoided mentioning the president's name altogether. Although the crowd seemed far more excited about Sanders than Quist, it seemed to do the trick - the Democrat began polling within spitting distance of Gianforte. 

Tempest in a teapot

Republicans have tried to strike back at Quist for being in favor of gun control, which prompted a campaign ad in which Quist shot the screen of a television - "me and my rifle have been here since before Greg Gianforte moved over from New Jersey" - not so dissimilar from one in which Gianforte shoots a computer with his own rifle.

Some conservative publications in Washington also tried to create a scandal around Quist and his daughter having performed as a musical duo at a nudist resort. But, as Anne Helen Petersen pointed out to WYNC, not only is there "a different attitude towards nakedness in Montana," which has many natural hot springs, the Quist campaign made it clear that the musicians performed clothed.

For his part, the Republican candidate has been attacked for his Montana bonafides, despite that fact that his move from New Jersey occurred over 24 years ago, and for being an out-of-touch billionaire with Russian investments. A former tech entrepreneur, Gianforte sold his business to software giant Oracle for $1.5 billion in 2011. He has slightly more political experience that Quist - he unsuccessfully ran for governor last fall against Democrat Steve Bullock.

USA Nachwahl für das Abgeordnetenhaus in Montana Greg Gianforte (Getty Images/J. Sullivan)

Gianforte has campaigned on a pro-business, tax-cutting platform

Republican charged with assaulting reporter

Despite the importance of the election to Democrats' hopes of winning back the House of Representatives in 2018, the vote was absent from most national headlines until just one day before the vote.

That was when Gianforte, fed up with being asked about his proposed health care cuts by the Guardian's Ben Jacobs, allegedly assaulted the reporter and broke his glasses. "I'm sick and tired of you guys…get the hell out of here!" the candidate can be heard shouting in a recording of the incident.

Three major Montana newspapers who had previously endorsed Gianforte dropped their support immediately, and the Republican has been charged with minor assault. According to a statement from the campaign, Jacobs' entered the candidate's office without permission and "aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face and began asking badgering questions…grabbed Greg's wrist…pushing them both the ground."

But Fox News journalists who witnessed the altercation dispute that version of events. They say that "Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him…then began punching the man, as he moved on top of the reporter and began yelling."

Conservatives call for Gianforte apology

US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said Gianforte should apologize for the assault.

"That's wrong and should not happen," Ryan said.

Republican political consultant Rick Wilson also called on his fellow conservatives to condemn Gianforte's behavior, calling the incident "the collapse of the GOP into the Trump Troll Party."

"If you're a Republican or conservative defending this, please stop identifying yourself as either," he wrote on Twitter.

Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter said: "It's not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it."

Although much has been made of Gianforte's violent outburst, it is hard to tell if it will play a role in the election at all. Some 37 percent of voters had already cast their vote in mail-in ballots before the incident. The state has just over 699,000 registered voters.

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