Big names face off over Montana GOP primary

Big names face off over Montana GOP primary
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Montana’s GOP Senate primary is drawing in some big-name supporters in the race to decide which Republican will face Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterVA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Democrats aim to block defense money from being used on Trump border wall MORE (D-Mont.).

Breitbart News chairman and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon has lined up behind state auditor Matt Rosendale.

Lola Zinke, the wife of Interior Secretary and former Montana congressman Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeExclusive: Trump administration delayed releasing documents related to Yellowstone superintendent's firing Trump's order to trim science advisory panels sparks outrage Conserving wildlife migrations starts with listening to landowners MORE, is backing businessman and Afghanistan veteran Troy Downing. Both sides have the ability to marshal donor networks and supporters behind their chosen candidate.

Montana Republicans consider Rosendale the early front-runner, citing his statewide political experience and conservative record as key advantages. But as Rosendale looks to win over conservative voters, Downing threatens to upend the race by playing up his military and outsider appeal.

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“Name identification and having previously ran is a high predictor of success. You have to [have] run and lost to win again in Montana,” one Montana Republican with ties to the state’s GOP grass roots told The Hill.

“But combat veteran status is incredibly important in Montana too, where we have one of the highest rates of veterans per capita.”

Rosendale is the only candidate in the primary who already has a statewide victory on his resume. Rosendale won the auditor spot in 2016. Two years earlier he finished third in the 2014 GOP congressional primary, in which a campaign ad of him shooting down a drone went viral.   

Other candidates with statewide records — including Zinke and state Attorney General Tim Fox — had been considered top candidates for the race to face Tester, but both chose to step aside.

Rosendale, a rancher and businessman, entered elected politics with a 2010 bid for the state House, ultimately becoming the state Senate majority leader and building a reputation with conservatives.

Unlike Downing, Rosendale can lean on previous campaign experience and the relationships he’s built with GOP activists in the state. Those relationships have already helped him win the backing of the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

“There’s no way anyone runs away with this. So if it’s a tight race, it’s going to matter how many boots they can get on the ground and how many doors they can knock on,” the grass-roots Republican said.

Rosendale’s political background gives him other early advantages, including a lead in direct donations.

Rosendale has raised almost $434,000 this year and has $354,000 on hand, with $217,000 in debt. Downing has sunk $350,000 into his bid, raised another $142,000 from donors and ended September with about $307,000 in the bank.

Rosendale’s allies are confident that he’s been able to run in the early stages of the race in a way that lesser-known candidates like Downing haven’t.

“This is a state of a million-and-change people and when Matt walks into a room, he knows these people, he’s helped them and been a part of their campaigns,” a person close to Rosendale’s campaign said.

“In a primary, no one can really get to the right of him, and it’s going to be a tough road to hoe if we are able to have the resources to run a significant, well-funded effort, which we will.”

Unlike Rosendale, Downing is making his first bid for office. But his confidants believe he makes up for any lack of political experience with a compelling narrative — as well as being able to campaign full time.

A businessman who sold his successful technology startup to Yahoo, Downing enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 34 after the Sept. 11 attacks.

He served two combat tours as a flight engineer on Black Hawk helicopters that ran search-and-rescue and medical-evacuation missions. After his time in the military, he helped found a charity organization for wounded veterans and now runs a group of storage facilities.

“This is a compelling narrative, a narrative we are going to tell. It’s not just, ‘Oh, he enlisted.’ It’s that this is a guy who was pretty well-off and not only did he serve two combat tours, but the experience had a profound impact on him,” a person close to Downing told The Hill.

“All those things are attributes that [resonate with] a GOP electorate that is looking for someone different, somebody who has not been calculating running for office his entire life.”

Downing has turned a recent legal flap over whether he illegally purchased hunting licenses reserved for state residents into a chance to highlight his outsider bona fides. He’s pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges related to the licenses, framing them in a September statement as attacks from “political power bases … threatened by a combat veteran who dares challenge the status quo.”

Billings, Montana Judge Russell Fagg and state Sen. Al Olszewski are also running in the GOP primary. But while they could have some influence on the race, most Montana Republicans see the race as a two-way contest between Rosendale and Downing.

The two men have powerful friends to help make their case, with Rosendale winning Bannon’s backing and Downing bringing Lola Zinke on board.

The Great America Alliance, a pro-Trump outside group that’s aligned with Bannon, endorsed Rosendale earlier this month, citing his conservative record.

Plus, some of President Trump’s allies were turned off by Downing’s critical tweets about Trump during the 2016 presidential race. Downing has since distanced himself from those tweets, saying that while he had initial doubts, he stands behind the president and his agenda.

Bannon’s backing could help Rosendale, a Montana Republican tracking the race pointed out to The Hill, in a state that Trump won by about 20 points.

“Montana is one of the top five states that the whole economic populism works with,” the Republican said.

“We are a very, very Trump state. People in Montana like the straight talk, not sugar-coated, and the economic stuff works too.”

But there’s also a concern that Bannon could bring unwanted controversy to the race, especially since Rosendale has crossover appeal with the same GOP establishment figures Bannon is fighting in other states.

Lola Zinke’s role as Downing’s campaign chair sends its own message to Montanans in a state that still looks favorably on her husband, now Interior secretary.

Republicans in the state describe Lola Zinke as well respected among conservative activists, with her endorsement as a “signal” to her husband’s supporters that Downing would govern in the mold of the former congressman, who made his own military service an integral part of his political career.

“Lola, in her own right, is a force,” the Downing ally told The Hill.

“We’ll let people draw their own conclusions.”