I covered politics in Montana. Its body-slamming politician doesn’t surprise me

Land, lots of land.
Land, lots of land.
Image: Reuters/Jim Urquhart
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Bozeman, Montana, rarely makes global news.  Its local businessman and congressional candidate Greg Gianforte is now earning international headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Gianforte, who is running for the state’s sole seat in the US House Representatives, was accused of body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs at an event May 25. Jacobs recorded the apparent assault, which was witnessed by other reporters. Gianforte was charged with a misdemeanor, and the many of the state’s newspapers have retracted their endorsements  on the morning of today’s election.

The attack is shocking, but as a reporter who once covered politics in Montana, I understand how it happened.

I spent three years at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in the mid-1990s. Politics wasn’t my regular beat, but with only seven news reporters on the staff, we all did a bit of everything. I met and interviewed Montana’s politicians, and got a first-hand education in the state’s peculiar political culture, where folksiness is prized, and amateurism encouraged.

I dodged flying spittle from tobacco-chewing U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and passed U.S. Sen. Max Baucus on jogging trails outside Missoula. In the state legislature—which meets for just 90 days, every other year—cowboy hats and bolo ties are considered business attire. Even when campaign finance scandals erupt, they involve sums that would be laughably small elsewhere.

Montana’s two most defining characteristics are its vast size, and its sparse population. With just over a million residents, Montana has fewer residents than the Bronx, spread over a territory larger than Germany. Some counties have fewer than 1,000 people.

With no big cities, Montana is, in essence, an enormous small market. Candidates campaign on an intimate scale, often driving huge distances to address tiny crowds. Politicians would drop by the Daily Chronicle—the paper’s slogan is Empowering the Community—with the hope of getting a mention in the next day’s paper, and meetings were relaxed and informal.

That friendliness could lead politicians to drop their guard, and reveal aspects of their nature they might have preferred to keep secret, like when Burns, now deceased, let slip a racist remark to a Chronicle editor, which became front page news. Journalists in Montana can be plenty tough, but they’re rarely aggressive.

That’s the media environment Gianforte was used to. Gianforte—a conservative Republican who founded RightNow Technologies, now part of Oracle—first ran for governor last year, losing to incumbent Steve Bullock, a Democrat, in a race that drew minimal national attention. When Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke was appointed interior secretary by US president Donald Trump, it created a vacancy and Gianforte threw his hat in the ring, running against democrat Rob Quist.

Unlike a normal House race, where it would be one of 435 nationwide, the campaign is one of five off-cycle elections being conducted this year, and it has become a barometer of the durability of Trump’s support. Bernie Sanders and Mike Pence made campaign stops, out-of-state money poured in, and reporters from Washington descended on the race.

It all added up to an unusually stressful environment for a Montana election. At the center of this maelstrom stood Gianforte, unaccustomed to the ferocity of the national (in this case, international) press or the intense spotlight afforded today’s politics of rancorous division. When asked a seemingly innocuous question about healthcare policy by Jacob, he appears to have snapped.

It should go without saying that Gianforte’s attack on Jacobs is unacceptable and indefensible, a violation of both the First Amendment and the Montana criminal code. While every candidate should know the the power of “no comment,” it’s hard to predict how anyone reacts under the spotlight. Gianforte may have run a successful business, but as a politician, he is strictly an amateur who crumpled under pressure.

Update: The post has been updated to clarify that Montana’s election is one of five House races being conducted this year.  It previously said it was one of five this spring.