U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte led Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams in Montana’s U.S. House race as votes were still being counted Tuesday night, with Gianforte looking to overcome the renewed attention on his attack against a reporter and keep the seat in Republican hands.
Both candidates spoke to their supporters at parties less than 3 miles (5 kilometers) from each other in Bozeman, with too many votes outstanding to declare a winner late Tuesday. Gianforte spoke briefly, saying to cheers that he had pulled ahead but noting there was still a long way to go.
Williams gave a longer speech and said she was wearing a pin from Jeannette Rankin’s 1916 campaign, in honor of the first woman elected to the U.S. House and the only woman that Montana has ever sent to Congress. Rankin was elected first in 1916 and again in 1940.
Gianforte is seeking his first full term in office after winning a special election 17 months ago to finish the term of Ryan Zinke, who resigned to become Interior Department secretary. It was Gianforte’s third statewide election in two years after he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016 against incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock, a race in which Gianforte spent more than $5 million of his own money.
Williams is a former state lawmaker who benefited from a fundraising surge in the final months of the race. She is seeking to become the first Democrat to hold Montana’s only House seat in 22 years.
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.
Helena voter Ed Mannix, 69, said he voted for Williams because he believes that Gianforte hasn’t made much of an impact.
“None of his ads really pointed out anything that he’s done except be endorsed by the NRA, whereas (for) Kathleen Williams, health care, in particular, is a big issue,” Mannix said.
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 benefited from President Donald Trump’s repeated visits to Montana to campaign for him and U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale, but the president also revived an issue Gianforte was trying to avoid.
Trump praised the congressman for assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs last year, saying at an October rally: “Any guy that can do a body-slam — he’s my kind of guy.”
Gianforte threw Jacobs to the ground when the reporter tried to ask him a question at a campaign event the day before the 2017 special election. Gianforte, 57, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and has repeatedly said he took responsibility and moved on.
Williams also made the attack a campaign issue by releasing an ad with an audio recording of the attack.
Gianforte’s entry into politics comes 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.
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.