WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans and Democrats found cause for optimism Friday even as the GOP candidate, facing last-minute assault charges, held onto Montana's sole House seat.
The final unofficial tally in Thursday's election showed wealthy Republican businessman Greg Gianforte with 50.2 percent of the vote, compared to Democratic musician Rob Quist with 44.1 percent.
"Great win in Montana," President Donald Trump said Friday as he attended the G-7 summit in Italy.
Democrats, who hope to harness the energy of liberal voters outraged at Trump to take control of the House in next year's midterms, said that forcing Republicans to spend millions to get a narrow win in conservative Montana amounted to a victory itself. Party strategists argued that Gianforte's margin in a state where Trump swamped Hillary Clinton by 20 points bodes well for dozens of other districts where the parties are more evenly matched.
"From the beginning this race was going to be very difficult, particularly for an oddly timed special election still in Trump's 'honeymoon,'" said Meredith Kelly, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Kelly said there are 114 other Republican-held districts with more favorable partisan makeups for Democrats than the Montana seat. Democrats would have to pick up 24 seats in next year's elections to retake the House majority.
Republicans disputed that analysis, arguing they employed a successful strategy in defining the Democratic candidate early and staying focused through Election Day.
And instead of Trump, who was embraced by Gianforte and rarely mentioned by Quist in a state where the president remains popular, Republicans said the key national figure in the race was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Polls show the California Democrat is strongly disliked by GOP base voters and she was mentioned in much of the advertising seen by voters ahead of the election.
"Greg Gianforte will be the next congressman from Montana, and Nancy Pelosi and liberals in Washington were rejected again," Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, said after the GOP win.
Republicans said the outcome lifts their hopes approaching two other special elections next month in Georgia and South Carolina. The Georgia election was another race where Democrats hoped to pull off a surprise victory, but their candidate fell short of 50 percent in the April primary, forcing a runoff in June.
For Democrats, there is frustration that despite the energy and activism from their base voters, they have yet to score a special election upset this cycle. Both candidates in the Montana contest were seen as flawed, but Quist in particular was a weak recruit for Democrats. The cowboy-hat-wearing musician making his first run for Congress had some financial problems in his past that Republicans jumped on.
That raises the question of whether Democrats are going to be able find convincing candidates to put up against GOP incumbents, who in some cases will be defending districts Trump won. The Democratic political bench is thin, due in part to the loss of more than 1,030 seats in state legislatures, governor's mansions and Congress during Barack Obama's presidency.
Pelosi herself, in a recent interview with The Associated Press, insisted that regardless of the outcome of any individual special election, Democrats would be well-positioned for the midterms because the opposition party historically picks up seats during the president's first term.
"We like to win, don't get me wrong. But I'm just saying, history is on our side," Pelosi said. "We'll keep up the enthusiasm, no question about that. We have one of the greatest organizers ever — Donald Trump."
Republicans were also reluctant to put too much meaning into the Montana outcome, given the particular circumstances of that race.
"These are always little stress tests," said Matt Gorman, communications director for the House GOP campaign committee.
Since around two-thirds of votes were cast before Election Day, the effect of the assault charge against Gianforte was unclear. The incident took place Wednesday, the day before the election, when witnesses said Gianforte slammed to the ground a reporter who was asking him questions about the Republican health care bill. Gianforte could be heard on an audio tape yelling at the reporter, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian.
Gianforte was later charged with misdemeanor assault, which will not prevent him from being seated in the House even if he is convicted.
After the altercation, Gianforte's campaign issued a statement blaming the reporter and the candidate stayed out of sight.
But after he was declared the winner, Gianforte apologized for the attack.
"When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it. That's the Montana way," he said. "Last night, I made a mistake. I took an action I can't take back and I am not proud of what happened."
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called the apology "a good first step toward redemption and I hope Gianforte continues to work toward righting his wrong."
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor in Washington, Bobby Caina Calvan in Bozeman, Montana, and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.