A Montana Republican running for a U.S. House of Representatives seat was charged with assaulting a reporter hours before polls opened on Thursday for a special election that could test President Donald Trump's political clout.
The incident on Wednesday roiled a tightening race in the Republican-leaning state, where a Democratic political novice aims to pull off a victory in a contest seen as a bellwether for next year's U.S. congressional elections.
It was not clear what effect the assault charge against Republican technology executive Greg Gianforte would have on the Montana race, where 37 percent of the 699,207 registered voters had already submitted absentee ballots, according to state election officials.
Polls are slated to close at 8 p.m. (0200 GMT).
Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault after Ben Jacobs, a political correspondent for the U.S. edition of the Guardian newspaper, said the candidate "body-slammed" him during a campaign event in Bozeman.
Gianforte could face additional, more serious charges once local prosecutors review the evidence, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert told Reuters.
Republican lawmakers criticized Gianforte but stopped short of asking him to withdraw from the race.
"Yeah, I think he should apologize," U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan told a news briefing. "There's no call for this, no matter what, under any circumstance."
Ryan said it was up to Montana voters to pick their representative and he would not attempt to block Gianforte from joining Congress if he wins the election.
Gianforte, who canceled interviews scheduled for Thursday on NBC's "Meet the Press" and Fox News, faces Democrat Rob Quist, a banjo-playing folk singer and first-time candidate, to fill the seat vacated when Trump named Ryan Zinke as secretary of the interior. Quist declined to comment on the incident.
Gianforte had been favored to win in a state where his party has held the lone House seat for two decades and where fellow Republican Trump won by more than 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.
The incident occurred when Jacobs tried to ask Gianforte about healthcare, according to an audio tape captured by the British newspaper's correspondent.
Fox News Channel reporter Alicia Acuna, who was preparing to interview Gianforte at the time, said the candidate "grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him to the ground."
"I'm sick and tired of you guys," Gianforte can be heard saying in the audio tape. "The last guy who came here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here."
Jacobs was taken to the hospital and later released, media reports said.
Gianforte faces a $500 fine and six months in jail if convicted, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office said.
CASE TO BE REVIEWED
Gianforte has two weeks to enter a plea to the misdemeanor citation issued by the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office, according to Lambert, who said he would likely review the case before then to decide whether it should be treated as a felony offense, which would supersede the current charge.
"There's always the possibility that when we get the case and the details, that we might look differently at the charging decision," Lambert said.
Gianforte's campaign did not deny Jacobs' allegation but countered in its own statement that the reporter provoked an altercation by barging into the candidate's office, shoving a recording device in his face and "asking badgering questions."
Three local newspapers have since withdrawn their endorsements for Gianforte.
A steady stream of people flowed into Lewis and Clark Library polling place in Helena, Montana, to vote on Thursday afternoon. Nathaniel Trumper, who voted for Gianforte, said he did not trust the published accounts of the alleged assault.
"I feel like, it's all just propaganda, you know what I mean, it's hard for me to believe anything the media tells me," Trumper said as he was leaving the polling place.
At a diner in Helena, Montana, some customers expressed dismay over the incident.
"If somebody can't control their temper any better than that, I don't think they should be in the Congress at all," said Verna Poore, a Quist supporter, as she ate at Steve's Cafe.
If Gianforte wins the election: "I don't think I'd feel real good about it," said another customer, Richard House, who declined to say whom he voted for.
(Writing by John Whitesides, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu and Ayesha Rascoe; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney)