GOP communications consultants worry their side may learn the wrong lesson from Greg Gianforte's victory Thursday night.
The Montana Republican won a special House election that turned out to be much closer than it should have been given the heavy GOP lean of the state. And he won it despite an election eve incident that resulted in a misdemeanor assault charge.
The alleged assault, described by Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs as a “body slam” that resulted in his glasses being broken and a brief hospitalization, was disputed by the campaign's spokesman, Mercury VP Shane Scanlon.
As the story was breaking, Scanlon released a statement saying the incident was the result of “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist.” The campaign’s statement also accused Jacobs of grabbing the candidate’s wrist and refusing multiple attempts to leave the room prior to the assault. That characterization doesn’t track with published eye witness accounts, and it isn’t supported by audio of the event.
“Even in the age of ‘alternative facts,’ campaigns can’t just concoct their own version of the truth,” said Republican consultant Zack Condry, who specializes in crisis communications and currently serves as a director at the Brunswick Group. “Opposition researchers, trackers, and a bevy of pool reporters guaranteed the truth was always going to come out in Montana.
“President Trump was able to get away with selling his own narrative on the campaign trail via blunt force trauma, but lower-tier candidates like Gianforte can’t really sell that same sort of lie-based spin.”
It’s increasingly clear the current political environment is a perilous one for candidates and staffers alike, and one that is rewarding bad behavior, at least in the short term. Thursday’s special election result is just the latest example.
The worry for some consultants, a handful of whom spoke only on background to C&E, is that practitioners allow the state of play to alter the way they approach such situations. In short, if there’s now a clear electoral benefit in lying to voters and to the press (even when that lie is demonstrable), how much further will our politics coarsen? And how much harder does it become for staffers and strategists to push back against dishonesty?
"If every GOP hack/flack quit their job when their boss lost their temper or screwed up, none of us would have jobs,” said Chris Faulkner, a Republican communications consultant. “We exist exactly for situations like this when there is an allegation we help clarify and transition the campaign back to being on message. I have not seen video so I have no idea what happened, but am sure there will be more than one version of events."
There might be more than one version, but only one is the truth. And that’s what worries GOP communications consultant Mark Harris.
"Any communications effort has to be founded on the truth because, ultimately, the truth will get out, as they say," Harris said.
The reality in Montana was that a Republican was always expected to win the special House election after President Trump carried the state by 20 points in 2016. But the incident which led to Gianforte being charged with misdemeanor assault meant his campaign was facing intensely negative media coverage as polls opened, which also reignited the debate over early voting among some strategists.
In the Montana race, close to 37 percent of voters had already cast their ballots by Wednesday night. Democrats and allied groups did scramble to capitalize on the incident, releasing a digital ad that featured the audio, though it was arguably too late in the game to mount a significant paid ad effort.
Meanwhile, in his victory speech, Gianforte apologized to Jacobs by name and said he “learned a lesson.”
“When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it. That’s the Montana way,” Gianforte said. “Last night, I made a mistake. And I took an action that I can’t take back, and I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded the way that I did.”
He also apologized to the Fox News crew who witnessed the alleged assault.
Ultimately, Condry concluded, “the legal dimension obviously complicates the matter, but the campaign should definitely have taken a far more measured approach from the outset.”