Greg Gianforte, the Republican U.S. House candidate who was charged late Wednesday with assaulting a reporter who asked him a policy question, is a billionaire tech entrepreneur who’s never held public office before, despite what his hardened distaste for the press may suggest.
He faces Democrat Rob Quist Thursday in a special election to fill Montana’s open congressional seat, which was vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The race already had garnered a lot of attention given that some observers viewed it as a referendum on President Donald Trump, but it was thrust even further into the national spotlight after Gianforte allegedly bodyslammed Guardian U.S. reporter Ben Jacobs when Jacobs asked him to respond to the Congressional Budget Office scoring of House Republicans’ bill to repeal Obamacare.
Gianforte’s alleged assault of Jacobs on the eve of the election is not the first time he’s expressed open hostility toward the media. During an event in April, an attendee asked the Republican candidate how to “rein in the news media,” which that individual described as “our biggest enemy,” according to the Billings Gazette.
“We have someone right here,” Gianforte replied, pointing to a reporter sitting in the audience, per the newspaper. “It seems like there is more of us than there is of him. I don’t have a simple solution for you. I will say that doing town hall meetings and getting out and visiting with people is very important.”
In its editorial rescinding an endorsement of Gianforte, the Billings Gazette said that the Wednesday incident puts Gianforte’s April comments in a new light.
“We’d point out that all the other questionable interactions Gianforte had with reporters, including one case where he joked about ganging up on a reporter, must now be seen through a much more sinister lens,” the Billings Gazette editorial board wrote. “What he passed off as a joke at the time now becomes much more serious.”
The Helena Independent Record also noted in its reversal of its endorsement for Gianforte that he has previously been hostile to the press.
“We are also sick and tired – of Gianforte’s incessant attacks on the free press. In the past, he has encouraged his supporters to boycott certain newspapers, singled out a reporter in a room to point out that he was outnumbered, and even made a joke out of the notion of choking a news writer, and these are not things we can continue to brush off,” the Helena Independent Record editorial board wrote, though it did not offer specific examples.
Gianforte has openly embraced President Donald Trump, an unusual move given the President’s low approval ratings, and adopted Trump’s “drain the swamp” catchphrase from the 2016 campaign. He has brought Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence along to campaign with him, and Trump himself recorded a robocall for Gianforte this week.
The candidate’s antagonism toward the press echoes that of Trump. In the Gianforte campaign’s statement on Jacobs’ allegation, a spokesman complained that “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”
Gianforte made his first bid for public office in 2016, when he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. Bullock, a Democrat, won by four points even though Trump won the state by a significant margin.
Prior to getting into politics he amassed great personal wealth by founding RightNow Technologies and later selling it to Oracle for $1.5 billion. The former tech entrepreneur also has ties to multiple Russian companies that have been sanctioned by the United States, as the Guardian reported in April.
As a candidate Gianforte is known for his religious and conservative views. He has questioned the theory of evolution as recently as April.
“I personally believe, as many Montanans do, that God created the Earth,” Gianforte said in an April interview with Montana Public Radio. “I believe that God created the Earth. I wasn’t there, I don’t know how long it took, I don’t know how he did it exactly. But I look around me at the grandeur in this state and I believe God created the Earth.”
His foundation has donated to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, which presents a Creationist viewpoint of the earth’s origins. And Gianforte once cited the biblical figure Noah to argue that Americans have an “obligation to work.”
“There’s nothing in the Bible that talks about retirement. And yet it’s been an accepted concept in our culture today,” he said in a February 2015 speech at the Montana Bible College, according to the Huffington Post. “Nowhere does it say, ‘Well, he was a good and faithful servant, so he went to the beach.’ It doesn’t say that anywhere.”
“The example I think of is Noah,” he added, per the Huffington Post. “How old was Noah when he built the ark? 600. He wasn’t like, cashing Social Security checks, he wasn’t hanging out, he was working. So, I think we have an obligation to work. The role we have in work may change over time, but the concept of retirement is not biblical.”
Though Gianforte’s alleged assault made a big splash in the national media just before polls opened, it’s not clear that it will have an impact on the election. A significant number of Montanans typically vote early via absentee ballot, and some voters told reporters on the ground Thursday that they were unfazed by Gianforte’s misdemeanor charge:
Gianforte voter to me in Bozeman just now, after declining an interview: "I think reporters have it coming."
— Garrett Haake (@GarrettHaake) May 25, 2017
MT GOP voter to me just now, knowing I work for @CNN: "That audio made me cheer." She smiled as she walked in to vote for Gianforte.
— Kyung Lah (@KyungLahCNN) May 25, 2017
MT GOP voter, upon learning we're from @CNN: "You're lucky someone doesn't pop one of you."
— Kyung Lah (@KyungLahCNN) May 25, 2017