BOZEMAN – Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist were neck-in-neck in early returns from Montana’s special congressional election Thursday night, in a race that’s been thrust under a harsh, national spotlight.

With 175,000 absentee votes counted – perhaps as much as 40 percent of the expected vote statewide – Quist led by a mere 1,000 votes, putting both candidates at 47 percent.

Libertarian Mark Wicks had the remaining 6 percent.

Early returns are from the more than 250,000 absentee votes cast before election day, counted during the day by county officials and posted soon after the polls closed at 8 p.m.

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The biggest chunks of votes came from Montana’s major cities. Gianforte was winning easily in Billings and led in Great Falls, but trailed in Missoula, Bozeman and Helena.

Results from votes cast Thursday had yet to be posted early in the evening.

Montana voters went to the polls Thursday to choose their only U.S. House representative, in a race marred by an assault charge filed the eve before the election against Republican Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte, a 56-year-old software entrepreneur from Bozeman, allegedly grabbed and punched a reporter Wednesday evening at a campaign event, as the reporter tried to question him over the GOP’s national health-care bill.

Gallatin County officials cited Gianforte for misdemeanor assault Wednesday and, since then, Gianforte hasn’t spoken to any media or issued any statements beyond a disputed account of the exchange between himself and Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.

He’s expected to address his supporters Thursday night, after results of the race come into clearer focus.

Republicans said earlier Thursday they worked this day to get out the vote to help Gianforte to victory – in the face of intense national, state and even international coverage of the election and alleged assault.

Gianforte is opposed by Democrat Quist, a songwriter and musician, and Wicks, a farmer from Inverness. The contest for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat began after Republican Ryan Zinke resigned in March, when he became U.S. Interior secretary.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., both have said that Gianforte should apologize for his actions.

Yet Ryan said Thursday the people of Montana would decide their next congressman, and declined to say they shouldn’t vote for Gianforte.

Most polls had shown Gianforte with a lead at least in the single digits going into Wednesday.

Whether Gianforte’s widely reported altercation with Jacobs may influence the final outcome remains to be seen.

At least two-thirds of the expected votes – some 260,000 – have already been cast, by absentee ballots that can’t be changed.

That means anywhere from a third to a fourth of the overall vote will happen at the polls Thursday.

Political scientists have said the turnout on Election Day tends to lean Republican.

Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College, told MTN News the big question is whether that dynamic changes.

He said less committed Gianforte supporters could stay home Thursday, or other voters could be motivated to come out for Quist or Wicks. But whether those effects are enough to sway the outcome is a guessing game, he said.

Quist remained mum about the incident, saying only that it’s in the hands of law enforcement, and spent the day in Missoula, where he’s having an election-night party of his own.