Thursday's special election in Montana took an unexpected turn as Republican candidate Greg Gianforte was charged with assaulting a reporter.
The incident, which took place at Mr Gianforte's headquarters on Wednesday one day before the vote, led to Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs being hospitalised after Mr Gianforte allegedly assaulted him.
Audio recordings suggest that the former tech executive “body-slammed” Mr Jacobs after he asked the candidate about the Republicans’ healthcare bill. “I’m sick and tired of this,” Mr Gianforte is heard to say on the recording.
A member of a Fox News television crew that witnessed the altercation said that Republican candidate grabbed Mr Jacobs by the neck and punched him.
The extraordinary developments dramatically upped the stakes in the election contest for Montana's next representative in Congress. Yet with approximately half the votes already cast – more than 250,000 Montana voters had already cast their votes by mail before Wednesday evening's altercation – it is unclear if it will affect the outcome of the election.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Mr Gianforte to apologise. "There's never a call for physical altercation. I do not think this is acceptable behaviour but the choice will be made by the people of Montana."
Mr Gianforte, a wealthy tech executive who previously ran for governor of the state, is battling Democratic candidate Rob Quist for a congressional seat which was vacated by Ryan Zinke after his appointment as interior minister by US president Donald Trump.
The rural state, though traditionally Republican in terms of congressional votes – Trump won congressional districts in Montana by more than 20 points – currently has a Democratic mayor who won re-election in November, so the state is not averse to voting blue.
Three local newspapers withdrew their support for Mr Gianforte following the incident. He is due to appear in court by June 7th.
A spokesman for Mr Gianforte offered a different account of the incident, stating that Mr Jacobs had been asked to lower his recorder from the candidate’s face but declined.
While Mr Gianforte has been leading in the polls, the vote is expected to be relatively tight, with the Republican candidate losing ground in polls even before Wednesday’s incident.
Mr Quist has campaigned strongly on healthcare, lambasting the Republican’s American Healthcare Act, the proposed replacement for Obamacare. Mr Gianforte has allied himself with Mr Trump, telling a campaign rally this month that he wanted to “help Donald Trump drain the swamp out there”.
The cowboy hat-wearing Mr Quist has also attracted approximately $6 million (€5.3m) in funding from Democrat donors and some high-profile support – Bernie Sanders campaigned alongside Mr Quist last weekend.
Thursday’s election is one of several “special elections” – required when vacancies arise – scheduled this year which are widely been seen as a barometer of public support for Mr Trump.
The run-off for the sixth congressional district of Georgia, and a vote in South Carolina to appoint a successor to Mick Mulvaney, who was appointed Mr Trump's director of office of budget and management, will take place on June 20th.
Last month Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff came within touching distance of clinching a seat in the traditionally Republican sixth congressional district of Georgia in a special election. Democrats are still hopeful the 30-year-old newcomer can still clinch the seat in the run-off next month despite Republicans this time around rallying behind one candidate – former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel.