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GOP's Gianforte prevails in Montana, despite assault charge

Elections may be zero-sum affairs, but Montana's results should make Republicans nervous.
Image: GOP Congressional Candidate Greg Gianforte Campaigns In Great Falls, MT
Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte speaks to supporters during a campaign meet and greet at Lions Park on May 23, 2017 in Great Falls, Montana.
DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan gave us a pretty good hint of what to expect in Big Sky Country this week, telling reporters that the party faces "a tough road" in Montana's congressional special election. This was borne out in the overnight results.

Republican Greg Gianforte declared victory in Montana's special congressional election, barely a day after he was charged with misdemeanor assault following accusations that he slammed a journalist to the ground. [...]Quist, who is a country singer, later conceded the contest for Montana's lone seat in the U.S. House.

With just about every precinct reporting, it looks like the Montana Republican won by six percentage points, 50.2% to 44.1%.The election, of course, was held just one day after Gianforte allegedly assaulted a reporter -- an incident the Republican's campaign was caught lying about -- though it's worth emphasizing that most of the state's ballots had already been cast via early voting.We'll never know what might have happened if Montanans knew in advance that that the GOP candidate is the kind of guy who turns violent with a journalist who asks for his reaction to a Congressional Budget Office report about a health care bill.So, what does the election tell us about the national landscape? While Republicans are no doubt pleased to have prevailed, they have every reason to be nervous about what it took to win.Remember, Democrats haven't seriously competed in Montana's at-large House race in decades. When Ryan Zinke gave up this seat to join Donald Trump's cabinet, it was a foregone conclusion Republicans would keep the seat with relative ease.But it wasn't easy at all. Republican groups from outside the state found it necessary to flood Big Sky Country with $5.6 million in campaign spending, while national GOP officials scrambled to boost Gianforte's chances in a state Donald Trump won by 20 points.FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver added shortly after midnight, "A night where Democrats are losing Montana by 'only' 6 or 7 points is consistent with the sort of map you might see if Democrats were either taking over the House, or coming pretty close to it."Yes, congressional elections are zero-sum affairs: candidates vie for a seat, the winner earns the opportunity to serve, and the loser gets nothing. No one gets a "nice job keeping it close" trophy.But context is everything. Democrats are performing far better than anyone would've expected, not only in Montana, but also in Kansas' 4th district and Georgia's 6th district -- ruby-red areas in red states -- which come against the backdrop of strong Democratic performances in state legislative special elections.If this doesn't make Republicans nervous -- and prompt tactical questions about whether the party is on the correct course -- they're not paying close enough attention.Postscript: Gianforte publicly apologized to reporter Ben Jacobs, the reporter he sent to the hospital, after declaring victory last night. "Last night, I made a mistake, and I took an action that I can't take back," the congressman-elect said. "I should not have treated that reporter that way, and for that, I am sorry, Mr. Ben Jacobs."That's generally not how this is supposed to work. Politicians who feel genuine contrition don't wait to issue an apology until after the electoral risk has disappeared. Gianforte apologizing was the right move, but the fact that he waited until the apology wouldn't cost him anything was classless.