During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump memorably boasted that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his voters. Thankfully, he never tested this theory.
That leaves us to settle for the example of Greg Gianforte, the Republican businessman who won a special election for Congress in Montana the day after he body-slammed a reporter. The incident wasn’t captured on video, but it was supported by an audio recording and eyewitness testimony from a Fox News camera crew.
Gianforte was charged with assault hours before the polls opened. He won an absolute majority of the vote in a three-way race contest anyway. (The Libertarian received a respectable 5.7 percent of the vote.)
In fairness, this is an oversimplification. More than a third of the vote came in early, before anyone had a chance to hear about Gianforte’s tussle. His Democratic opponent tapped into the state’s populism reasonably well and raised considerable sums from the progressives energized by Bernie Sanders, but wasn’t a favorite of the national party.
Unlike other red states, Montana has a swing vote that is willing to break for the Democrats. Just ask Sen. Jon Tester or Gov. Steve Bullock, who defeated Gianforte in the gubernatorial election last year. But this House seat has been in Republican hands since 1997 and, if anything, Gianforte underperformed (though not relative to some private polling showing him with a less than 5-point lead).
Gianforte also did finally apologize during his victory speech, which wasn’t optimal but certainly better than saying nothing. His campaign had initially released a statement blaming the “aggressive” liberal reporter, who thrust his phone in the candidate’s face.
The body slam heard ‘round the world will nevertheless rank very high on the list of things associated with Gianforte’s political career, no matter what he does from here on out. Democrats hoped the race would illustrate Republican vulnerability in the 2018 midterm elections, helping their candidate recruitment and fundraising.
An argument could still be made that, taken together with recent results in Kansas and Georgia as well as the Georgia runoff polling, that the Democrats came close enough to send a message about the midterms.
“When a party vastly underperforms the past presidential vote consistently, it tends to do poorly in the following midterm,” wrote FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten. “If the average House Republican candidate has underperformed nationally by 16 points once all the special elections occur, it would be on par with 2006, when Democrats took back the House.”
To put it another way, there are a lot of Republicans who can’t afford to underperform President Trump as badly as Gianforte did. There are also almost as many Republicans representing districts Hillary Clinton carried as the GOP’s 24-seat House majority.
At the same time, Gianforte’s solid if unspectacular win, coming after being charged with a misdemeanor assault, undermines Democratic arguments for making an example of Montana. Instead, the focus has shifted to making Gianforte an example of the perilous climate Trump has created for the media.
This argument is not entirely fair. A cursory listen to the audio shows Gianforte losing his temper in a way that didn’t require any inspiration from Trump. His attitude may have been informed by his disdain for liberal reporters or negative opinion of past coverage he had received from The Guardian, but the anger management skills on display were his alone.
Let’s also not forget that conservative hostility to liberal media bias long predates Trump. Fox News’ explosive growth was entirely based on the perception the other networks weren’t “fair and balanced.”
“Annoy the media, re-elect Bush” was a bumper sticker in the 1992 campaign, not 2004. “Rather Biased” was a popular conservative jibe against Dan Rather at least a decade before he was finally pushed out at CBS over his botched reporting on the younger President Bush’s military service.
All that being said, Trump has certainly amped up right-wing media-bashing and many of his voters have followed his cue. Trump also made up for what he lacked in credibility on conservative litmus test issues with a willingness to fight the mainstream media in ways that more ideologically conservative Republicans never seem to be able to do.
Trump’s rise has been fueled by the fact that a subset of right-leaning voters has reacted to genuine liberal media bias by retreating into a cocoon of conservative fantasy with websites that often consciously peddle actual “fake news.”
No one has his finger placed more firmly on the pulse of conservatives seeking entertainment through anti-Democrat trolling than Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh praised the “manly, studly” Gianforte for getting tough with the “smug, arrogant” reporter who reminded him of “Pajama Boy” from the ill-fated Obamacare promotion.
How this will end, nobody knows. But when that story is finally written, Congressman Gianforte is name that will appear in the index.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.