BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Montana's new congressman hasn't even been sworn into his first public office, but people are already talking about his prospects in 2018 and even 2020.
First things first though for Greg Gianforte, who has to deal with a misdemeanor assault charge he received the day before the election after witnesses said he slammed a reporter to the ground.
Gianforte could have appeared in court in Bozeman on Friday to resolve the charge but did not and has a June 7 legal deadline do so.
He faces a maximum of 6 months in jail and a $500 fine if convicted. It's rare for people to serve jail time for misdemeanors unless they have serious criminal records. The Gallatin County Attorney is also reviewing the case to see if additional charges are merited.
Montana Democrats on Friday quickly called for Gianforte to not be seated in Congress until his legal issues are resolved.
"The people of Montana deserve to finally have representation in the U.S. House," party chairwoman Nancy Keenan said in a statement. "However, they should not have to be represented by a man who is currently facing an assault charge for body slamming another person. Greg Gianforte should not be sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives while his assault case is still pending in court."
There is no legal impediment to Gianforte becoming a member of Congress with a pending misdemeanor. Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, for example, returned to Congress facing an indictment for federal tax fraud and kept his seat even after he pleaded guilty, only leaving after voluntarily resigning. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, remains in the upper chamber while under federal indictment for corruption.
It's also unclear how quickly Gianforte can assume his seat. Montana has been without a congressman since Rep. Ryan Zinke became secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior in March, creating the vacancy that sparked the special election.
But Congress is out of session until June 6, and Montana is not expected to formally certify Gianforte's victory until at least June 15.
Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, hailed Gianforte's win. But he added: "Now he needs to resolve his legal issue so that he can start off on the right foot serving his constituents."
Montana's Republican senator and House Speaker Paul Ryan had called on Gianforte to apologize on Thursday. After his campaign initially issued a statement blaming the reporter, Gianforte stayed out of sight until the polls closed Thursday evening. He apologized for the confrontation when he declared victory that night.
Gianforte also promised to act differently as a congressman and spend as much time in the state as he could. "You deserve a congressman who stays out of the limelight and just gets the job done," he told supporters.
A campaign spokesman said Gianforte would not be available for an interview.
"He's with his family right now, and will be spending time with them over the weekend" Shane Scanlon said.
Gianforte will remain under the political microscope. The technology entrepreneur unsuccessfully ran for governor last year, and many political insiders in Montana expect him to make a second bid in 2020, when the current governor leaves office due to term limits.
He'd potentially face a competitive Republican primary then. And he may face another challenge in just 18 months, when his House seat is up again.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee, said the party "will be competing hard for this seat in 2018."
Riccardi reported from Denver.