Republicans are calling on Montana House candidate Greg Gianforte to apologize, but are stopping short of rescinding their support or calling for him to withdraw from Thursday's election.
"There's never a call for physical altercations," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Thursday in Washington when asked to comment on Gianforte's alleged assault of a reporter in Bozeman, Montana Wednesday night. "There's no time where a physical altercation should occur with the press or just between human beings .... that is wrong and should not have happened."
"Should the gentleman apologize? Yes. He should apologize," Ryan added.
Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault following the incident, in which he allegedly grabbed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs' neck, slammed him to the ground and punched him, according to a Fox News reporter who was in the room.
Many voters across Montana will cast ballots Thursday for the at-large district race between Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, but more than 200,000 had already cast early or mail-in ballots at the time of the incident. The special election is to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican, who is now President Donald Trump's secretary of the interior.
Ahead of the alleged assault, polling showed a tightening race between Gianforte, who once appeared poised to glide to victory, and Quist, a folk singer. But Trump's unpopularity and millions poured into the race from donors and outside groups have focused national attention on the race, allowing Democrats to feel optimism on the possibility of coming close in a race for a seat that hasn't been competitive for decades.
On Thursday, Ryan indicated he would not move to deny Gianforte the seat, if he wins the election.
"If he wins he's been chosen by the people of Montana. I'll let the people of Montana decide," Ryan said. He later added: "I do not think this is acceptable behavior but the decision will be made by the people of Montana.
The Constitution stipulates that Congress can refuse to seat an elected member by majority vote; expelling a member, once seated, required a two-thirds vote.
Montana's Republican junior senator, Steve Daines, expressed the opinion that Gianforte should apologize, while senior Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, stopped short of calling for him to withdraw but pointed out that Gianforte, if elected, would frequently face many reporters demanding he answer questions in the hallways of the Capitol.
"This is in the hands of law enforcement," Tester said in a statement. "But part of the job representing the people of Montana is answering basic questions on important topics, topics such as how a dangerous health care plan could impact the very people you are trying to represent."
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, cautioned against a rush to judgment.
"From what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes," Stivers said. "We need to let the facts surrounding this incident unfold. Today's special election is bigger than any one person; it's about the views of all Montanans. They deserve to have their voices heard in Washington."
Democrats, meanwhile, say the incident is disqualifying.
"I viewed that as a mom and a grandmother," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday. "We try to have some level of dignity as to how we treat people and who we are ... To see this person, who wants to be the one representative into the House of Representatives from Montana be sort of a wannabe Trump. You know, use language like that, treat people harshly like that — that's his model. Donald Trump's his model."
"We've really got to say, 'Come on. Behave." Pelosi said. "Behave. That was outrageous."