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Everything you need to know about today’s special election in Montana

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Many Americans woke up Thursday to news of a Montana Republican candidate for Congress being charged with assaulting a reporter just hours before polls opened in his contest.

Their reaction was probably along these lines: there is an election today in Montana?

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Yes, there is, and it has shaped up to be a big deal. Here is everything you need to know about it: 

Why is there a special election in the first place?

The election was called to fill the seat recently held by US Representative Ryan Zinke, whom President Trump picked to serve as his US secretary of the interior. 

Why should anyone care about a race in the middle of Montana?

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First, it is not in the middle of Montana -- the race is to represent all of Montana. There is only one US representative for the entire state.

And it's important because the political parties are watching for signs of whether Trump's poor approval ratings will translate to the ballot box. Trump won Montana by 21 points in the presidential election last year, and Republicans were heavily favored from the beginning. But recent polls of the special election showed the race tightening.

Is the race really a referendum on Trump?

It depends which party you ask. The Republican candidate, Greg Gianforte, a wealthy businessman who is relatively new to the state, wants the race to be about Trump, who is still pretty popular in that state. Vice President Mike Pence has campaigned with him, and Trump has recorded some automated phone calls in support of him. 

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The Democratic candidate, Rob Quist, doesn't really mention Trump by name, but he is running against Trump's policies, especially potential changes to the Affordable Care Act. 

So what happened last night with the reporter and Gianforte?

In the final evening before the election, Gianforte's campaign held a "thank you" BBQ for his volunteers. He was then scheduled to go down the hall for an interview with Fox News Channel. Along the way, he was trailed by a few reporters asking him questions, including Ben Jacobs of the Guardian. 

Jacobs was trying to get the candidate on the record about a new development in the Republican health care bill. Gianforte tried to put off any interview for "later," even though, as Jacobs notes, there will be no "later" with the election the next day. Then, according to Jacobs and the Fox News crew, Gianforte physically put Jacobs on the ground. 

"Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses," Jacobs tweeted last night

Jacobs has full audio of the exchange. Fox News also published a first-hand account of what happened.

Hours later local police said they had enough evidence to charge Gianforte with misdemeanor assault. 

Will the assault on the reporter have much impact on the race?

It already has had an impact. Three Montana newspapers rescinded their endorsement of Gianforte, and the Democratic base is fired up over the news. Republicans are close to silent on the matter, and Gianforte is on the defensive. 

However, at least a third of the anticipated votes had already been cast by Monday, according to the Montana Secretary of State. Going forward, there could be those who were planning to vote for Gianforte who might now change their minds or stay home.

Is this the only weird thing about this race?

No. It has been weird for a while.

First, the Democratic candidate is a former musician. Republicans liked to point out he did regular gigs at a nudist park (he was clothed).

Second, neither candidate won a primary. They were just selected by party leaders behind closed doors. 

Third, spending in the race is already double the previous record for campaign spending in state history. And Democrats, who have been accused of not doing enough to help candidates in other special elections, are outspending Republicans two-to-one.

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