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A Sleepy Senate Primary Heats Up in Montana

Outside spending intensifies battle between Rosendale and Fagg

Former judge Russ Fagg is seeking the GOP nomination for Senate in Montana. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former judge Russ Fagg is seeking the GOP nomination for Senate in Montana. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The next big Republican Senate primary is in Montana, where voters will choose Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s opponent on Tuesday.

The GOP contest in Big Sky Country was a sleepy affair for much of this year, lacking the verbal ax throwing that animated similar contests in Indiana and West Virginia this spring.

“It kinda starts late in Montana, it always does,” said a GOP strategist who works in the state. Not to mention that voters there went through a grueling gubernatorial race in 2016, shortly followed by an expensive special election for the at-large House seat.

“Some people just don’t want to pay attention,” the strategist added.

More than 130,000 people had voted early as of Tuesday night, and with the June 5 primary inching closer, outside groups have increasingly been saturating the airwaves and candidates have been scrambling to differentiate themselves. 

The stakes are high: The GOP nominee will be running in a state that President Donald Trump carried by more than 20 points. Tester has never won with more than 50 percent of the vote. And Trump has already shown he’s ready to energize his supporters against the two-term Democrat when he called for the senator’s resignation over a dispute about his previous nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary. 

Watch: Six Months Out — The Most Vulnerable House and Senate Incumbents

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Beauty pageant 

Without major policy differences among the four Republicans in the Senate contest, the contrasts are stylistic. 

“Primary races are like beauty pageants,” said GOP strategist Erik Iverson, a former chairman of the Montana Republican Party, who’s done work for one of the primary candidates, businessman Troy Downing.

“You’re always trying to find ways to stand out, but everybody kind of looks the same,” Iverson said.

State Auditor Matt Rosendale has even put his personal aesthetic front and center. In his debut television ad, his wife trims his hair. He sports the same flattop coif that is Tester’s claim to fame. (And if Rosendale’s ad felt familiar, maybe that’s because Tester shot a similar spot during his first run for Senate in 2006.)  

In another ad, Rosendale dons the politically ubiquitous barn jacket as he struts around a barnyard where a television displaying Tester’s face is conveniently resting on a pile of manure. The most recent spot highlights his support for building Trump’s border wall. 

Rosendale is widely considered the front-runner. But polling has been scant, with either Rosendale’s team or outside groups supporting him behind the limited surveys released so far.

After several other statewide officeholders, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, passed on the race, Rosendale became the top pick. He’s one of the rare GOP candidates nationally who attracted early interest from more establishment forces in Washington and from pro-Trump outside groups, as well as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.  

Rosendale’s trying to run as the outsider with endorsements from conservative senators, the Club for Growth and two outside groups backed by GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein.

It’s a convenient message in the Trump era, but potentially harder to pull off, some Republicans say, as a sitting statewide elected official who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014 after serving in both the state House and Senate.

Montana values?

Rosendale’s opponents — both Democrats and Republicans — are going after his alleged not-so-deep ties to Montana. 

State Democrats seized on a Tuesday report from Talking Points Memo that said Rosendale, despite identifying himself foremost as a rancher, has never owned any cattle.

Rosendale’s roots in Maryland, where he was born and raised and worked as a real estate developer until 2002, came up in his 2014 race for the House. (He finished third in that year’s GOP primary.) His background is again at the heart of attacks against him this year. An outside group called Principles First PAC is airing a TV ad calling Rosendale “Maryland Matt,” adopting the same moniker the state Democratic Party has used against him.

That’s given Russ Fagg, his top challenger, an opening to tout himself as a “fourth-generation Montanan.” The former judge is also using his 22 years on the bench to play up his law-and-order credentials with the GOP base. In his advertising, he touts his support for the death penalty for “illegal immigrants who commit murder” and attacks Rosendale for wanting to do away with the death penalty.

The Club for Growth’s political arm responded with an ad attacking Fagg for going easy on criminals, and followed up with more TV and radio advertising this week, saying, “Russ Fagg’s values are not Montana values.” As of Wednesday, Club for Growth Action had spent about $1.6 million on the race. The fact that the club keeps spending is evidence to some GOP observers that Rosendale may not be as much of a shoe-in as conventional wisdom would suggest.

Protect Freedom PAC, a super PAC with ties to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, launched a $100,000 statewide TV ad campaign on Wednesday that attacks “Taxin’ Russ Fagg” and supports Rosendale. 

Fagg’s team, meanwhile, has used the outside support for Rosendale to make the case that he’s been propped up by “out-of-state millionaires.” Fagg is running with the backing of many current and former Montana elected officials, including ex-Reps. Rick Hill and Denny Rehberg and three former governors.

Sprint to Tuesday

The primary now looks like a two-person contest, but Downing and state Sen. Albert Olszewski are still in the race.

“It’s not like in some states where they’re running in name only,” the GOP strategist said. “These guys are crisscrossing the state, all four guys.”

Downing, an Air Force veteran, has tried to hitch himself to Trump, and even invited former national security adviser Michael Flynn to campaign with him. (The rally was eventually canceled because Flynn had a family emergency.)

As of the pre-primary reporting period, Downing had loaned his campaign over a million dollars. He was up on TV early but hasn’t poured as many of his own resources into the race as had been expected. Having recently moved into the state from California, Downing has residency issues of his own, and has been accused of illegally trying to buy in-state hunting licenses before he was a Montana resident.

Downing ended the pre-primary period with $73,000 in the bank, compared to $392,000 for Rosendale and $363,000 for Fagg. Tester is already up on TV and had $6.4 million in the bank. If the outside spending for and against Tester is any indication, there’ll be plenty more investment on both sides between Tuesday and November. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the general election race Tilts Democratic

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