Give Gianforte a Brooks Award

Even if we credit an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theory that Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs is a perfect ass who was trying to provoke GOP congressional candidate Greg Gianforte into some kind of indiscretion, there really isn’t much excuse for Gianforte’s complete loss of discipline and composure. If Gianforte wins the election today, the House GOP leadership will face a dilemma about whether to use its constitutional powers to refuse to seat Gianforte.

And Gianforte may well win the election today, not just because Montana is a GOP-leaning state (though it currently has a liberal Democratic governor, Scott Bullock), but because nearly two-thirds of the likely electorate has already cast their ballots through early voting. There is disagreement among political scientists whether early voting makes a significant difference to most election outcomes. Some studies conclude early voting just represents the advance turnout of a reliable partisan vote. Perhaps so, but I remain opposed to early voting because it dilutes the way in which election day represents a concrete collective decision of one electoral body based on the same temporal information. Things can happen late in campaigns that cause people to change their minds, or cause undecided voters to make up their minds. This happened in the 1980 and 2000 presidential races (and maybe 1988 too), for example, and in a number of state and local races I can think of from yesteryear.

I think it is doubtful that Montana voters would elect Gianforte if everyone voted today, when the special election is actually taking place. If Gianforte does win, at least he can claim a lineage to South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks, the man who nearly beat Sen. Charles Sumner to death with his cane on the Senate floor in 1856. Maybe there should be a Preston Brooks Award created for circumstances such as this.

JOHN demurs: While I can’t endorse assaulting journalists, I wonder whether the incident will have much of a negative impact for Gianforte. Donald Trump carried Montana by 20 points, and I suspect that a good many Trump voters are not particularly horrified by someone throttling a rather twittish reporter. Especially in Montana. The bigger issue, it seems to me, is turnout. At this point, anti-Trump voters may be considerably more motivated to turn out for a special election than pro-Trump voters. If that is the case, the Democrat could well win.

But if Gianforte pulls it out, I don’t agree that there should be any serious question about whether to seat him. A misdemeanor assault charge can hardly be disqualifying for a House member.

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