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GOP Waiting on Rosendale in Montana Senate Race

With top contenders passing on contest, crowded primary emerging

Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale, seen here in 2013, is expected to run for Senate. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale, seen here in 2013, is expected to run for Senate. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Republican field for Montana’s Senate race keeps growing, but the GOP is hopeful that an imminent announcement from state Auditor Matt Rosendale will give them a top-tier challenger against Sen. Jon Tester, one of 2018’s most vulnerable Democrats. 

“He is 95 percent there,” a Republican close to Rosendale said last week. The first-term auditor is expected to make a decision within the month. 

As a statewide-elected official, Rosendale would bring to the race the same advantage as the party’s top two previous picks. Former Rep. Ryan Zinke was the presumed front-runner to take on Tester until he joined President Donald Trump’s Cabinet as Interior secretary. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox then became the man to watch, but he passed on a bid last month when a path to the 2020 gubernatorial nomination became more clear.

If Rosendale were the GOP nominee, the general election in the Treasure State would have a distinctive aesthetic: the flattop versus flattop race.

Rosendale shares Tester’s signature buzz cut  — a hairstyle Tester invoked in a 2006 campaign commercial in his first run for Senate against GOP Sen. Conrad Burns, who was dogged by his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. On his campaign website, the Democratic senator brags that the cut only costs $12 (including tip). 

It’s more than a coif.

“In Montana, it’s a personality contest,” one Republican said of the race. “And Rosendale has the look.”

The right candidate?

Republicans understand the importance of nominating someone who “screams Montana” against Tester, a well-known farmer in the state. Despite Greg Gianforte’s victory for the GOP earlier this year in the special election for Zinke’s House seat, many Republicans admit that he came across as the New Jersey billionaire Democrats tried to brand him.

There’s disagreement about whether Rosendale fits the bill. He moved to the state in the early 2000s, and has been ribbed for having a Maryland accent. A Rosendale matchup against Tester would be a “cakewalk” for the two-term Democrat, said one Montana Republican unaffiliated with any of the GOP candidates.

“But if it’s someone who’s actually from Montana, then they can run the race Tester ran against Burns in 2006,” the same Republican said. The GOP would go after Tester, a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, by trying to tie him to Washington, D.C. Trump, with his outsider persona, remains popular in the state.

But many Republicans dismiss Rosendale’s Maryland roots as a problem since he didn’t run for public office until well after settling in Montana. He was elected to the state House in 2010 and then the state Senate in 2012.

“He moved there for the same reasons most Montanans do — they love the place,” said the Republican close to Rosendale. 

Taking on Tester, though, means first winning what’s shaping up to be a crowded GOP primary with at least six Republicans currently running or interested in running. 

“The more crowded this is, the worse off it’s going to get,” a Republican operative said. Which is why there’s talk of Rosendale getting in soon and starting with more of a campaign infrastructure than some of the other contenders. 

That’s in part because this isn’t his first run for Congress. In 2014, Rosendale ran for the GOP nod for the House seat and came in third place with 29 percent of the vote. The conservative legislator earned national attention for a spot in which he shoots down a drone, playing up his libertarian streak.  

“Spying on our citizens? That’s just wrong,” Rosendale says after firing his rifle. “I’m ready to stand tall for freedom and get Washington out of our lives.”

He loaned his campaign more than $1 million for that race, but he didn’t actually raise much money. His campaign account is $237,000 in debt, according to his April filing with the Federal Election Commission. He’s working with OnMessage Inc., the same firm he worked with in 2014. 

Rosendale’s new job as auditor and state insurance commissioner, to which he was elected last fall, puts a hot topic under his purview: health care. He and Tester recently exchanged letters on the subject. While Rosendale supports repeal of the 2010 health care law, he has said the House GOP legislation, passed in May, did not phase out essential health benefits fast enough. 

Other options

But as high as many Republicans seem on Rosendale right now, party strategists in D.C. insist that all is not lost if he makes a surprise decision not to run. “We definitely have backups,” one said.

That’s a view shared by some of Rosendale’s skeptics in Montana, too. “If you’re the most well-known in a pack of people that no one knows, does that really make you the guy to watch?”

There are others.

Businessman and Air Force veteran Troy Downing and Albert Olszewski, a state senator, have already announced.

Downing, the head of a California-based self-storage company, has a compelling story — and the money to sell it. He co-founded the web calendar system, WebCal, and enlisted in the military after 9/11. Despite previously tweeting criticism of Trump, he’s since visited the White House to meet with the president’s political team. And he’s reportedly close with Zinke. He’s working with GOP strategist Chris LaCivita. 

“If he does write that check, that would put him in the upper echelon,” a Montana Republican said of Downing’s ability to self-fund. Downing’s biggest vulnerability will be that he’s from California, Republicans in the state said.

But with Rosendale potentially suffering from the same weakness, the issue could be moot — unless their opponents are able to land a more damaging punch about them not understanding Montana values.

Russell Fagg, a district court judge in Billings, toyed with running in the special election for Zinke’s seat. Instead, he’s formed an exploratory committee for the Senate, and plans to retire from the bench in October, when he’ll make a final decision about running.

He was introducing himself to the party faithful at the state’s GOP convention last month, and he’s scheduled to make the rounds in D.C. this week.

Fagg, a self-described “center-right” Republican, is already raising money. He and his team insist that’s legal and ethical despite him being a sitting judge.

Having been a judge for 22 years, and a state legislator before that, he has a strong geographic base in vote-rich Yellowstone County, home to the state’s biggest media outlets.

And then there’s Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon and state senator who hails from the Flathead area of the state, an important region in a GOP primary. Like Rosendale, he leans more to the right of the party. He’s proposed bills in the legislature to ban abortions after 24 weeks and make violations a felony. Olszweski was the first candidate to announce against Tester, launching his bid in April

But since then, the field has changed. Zinke and Fox were the “end of our big guns,” one Montana Republican said. That’s given way to a crowded field of little-known candidates, with a handful of lesser-known names eyeing the race, too.

“They are on tier three,” one Democrat familiar with the state cracked. 

Then again, a Montana Republican mused, no one knew the president of the Montana state Senate in 2006 either. It was Tester.

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