The Republican Party of Wisconsin and two of its candidates have received more than $15,000 from U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, the Montana congressman who President Donald Trump recently praised for body-slamming a reporter during his 2017 campaign.
Records show that Gianforte made a $10,000 contribution to the Republican Party of Wisconsin's federal account in August, after giving $2,700 each to U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman and congressional candidate Bryan Steil in July. The contributions were the maximum amount for each recipient.
During a rally in Montana earlier this month, the president praised Gianforte for assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs during his 2017 campaign for Congress. Trump said after he heard Gianforte body-slammed a reporter, he thought it would help the candidate pick up votes.
"Anybody that can do a body-slam … he's my guy," Trump said, miming the move.
Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after an incident that stemmed from Jacobs asking the candidate a question on the eve of Gianforte's special election in May 2017. According to Fox News crew members who were present, Gianforte "grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him … (and) then began punching the reporter."
Gianforte paid $385 in court fees in fined and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management classes. He also donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists, although the group's advocacy director described a meeting with Gianforte as "disappointingly brief."
After winning his special election with 50.2 percent of the vote, Gianforte is on the ballot again Nov. 6. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and causes throughout the country since 2017, and is ranked by Roll Call as the second-wealthiest member of Congress.
Gianforte committed in July to contributing $800,000 to Protect the House, a joint fundraising committee between House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Vice President Mike Pence.
"It is disappointing but frankly unsurprising that Glenn Grothman and Bryan Steil would take money from an individual who has committed violence against the press — Grothman and Steil have both looked the other way as leaders in their party have incited hatred," said Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Martha Laning. "Now more than ever, we need political leaders who will call out divisive and dangerous rhetoric when they see it."
Both Grothman's and Steil's finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show payments to Plain Stakes LLC, a consulting firm based in Bozeman, Montana and headed by former Gianforte campaign manager Amy Lunde. Lunde ran Gianforte's gubernatorial campaign in 2016, before he ran for Congress. Lunde has worked on several Wisconsin campaigns.
Asked about the contributions, a spokesman for Grothman's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republican Party of Wisconsin executive director Mark Morgan pointed to contributions Wisconsin Democrats have received from Mark Bakken, the former CEO of Nordic Consulting. The Madison Equal Opportunities Commission found probable cause in 2014 that a woman employed at Nordic had been sexually harassed and fired in retaliation for complaining. Bakken was not accused of harassing the employee, but was the one who fired her. He said he did so because of poor performance.
Since November 2016, Bakken has given $35,000 to DPW, $20,000 to attorney general candidate Josh Kaul, $2,500 to gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers and $10,400 to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
"Wisconsin Democrats have repeatedly taken contributions totaling tens of thousands of dollars from a donor accused of retaliating against a victim of sexual harassment at his company. They lost all credibility on campaign contributions a long time ago," Morgan said in an email.
A spokesman for Steil, who is running to replace outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan in the 1st Congressional District, did not mention Gianforte in his response.
"Conservatives are determined to defeat Randy Bryce and his far left policies that would raise taxes on Wisconsin families. Over 75 percent of our donors are from Wisconsin while Randy Bryce's campaign has been funded by liberal donors from just about anywhere but Wisconsin," Steil spokesman Andrew Iverson said in an email.
According to data analyzed by the Center for Responsible Politics, 90 percent of Democratic candidate Randy Bryce's campaign contributions have come from outside of Wisconsin, while 39 percent of Steil's have come from out-of-state. The Steil campaign provided updated data to show that 24 percent of its contributions over the course of the cycle have come from outside Wisconsin.
Steil's campaign also noted that Bryce has received support from comedian Chelsea Handler, who has come under fire twice for tweeting homophobic jokes at U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and from actor Sean Penn, who publicly praised former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Groups supporting Steil's campaign have gone after Bryce for his arrest record, which includes charges for drunken driving and marijuana possession. Bryce has said he has learned from his mistakes.
A Bryce spokeswoman urged Steil to return the Gianforte contribution.
"Bryan Steil's actions speak louder than his words. Unless he condones the violence that Donald Trump is inciting in unhinged people like Greg Gianforte, Steil must return Gianforte's donation and publicly denounce Trump's dangerous rhetoric," Bryce spokeswoman Julia Savel said in a statement.