Montana’s GOP Senate primary is ramping up in the final stretch, as candidates jockey to face Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Senate backers of new voting rights bill push for swift passage The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Polls open in California as Newsom fights for job MORE (D) in November.
State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who was recruited by the GOP after several top-tier contenders passed on the race, is still seen as the front-runner, with national outside groups putting up more than $1.8 million to help him across the finish line in the June 5 primary.
But Rosendale has also been the biggest target for attacks from his primary opponents, who have accused him of being a carpetbagger because he moved to Montana two decades ago. Rosendale’s rivals have also dubbed him a career politician and seized on his opposition to the death penalty to paint him as not conservative enough for the nomination.
Between those attacks and limited polling in the four-candidate race, strategists on both sides of the aisle see an unpredictable primary. But there’s a big prize awaiting whoever survives the June primary — a match-up with Tester, who has drawn the ire of President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE after Tester helped to sink his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Trump won the state by 20 points in 2016 and has taken to frequently attacking Tester — providing whoever wins the Republican nomination with an easy chance to tie themselves to Trump.
“Up until a few weeks ago, this primary in Montana was really, really sleepy, there wasn’t a lot going on, not a lot of activity on the airwaves,” said a GOP operative following the race. “It’s pretty much wide open.”
A handful of crowded GOP primaries have turned contentious this cycle, as Republicans fight for the right to face a number of vulnerable Senate Democrats. But Montana has mostly flown under the radar, with the GOP candidates focused instead on elevating their profiles and attacking Tester.
Rosendale, who previously served as majority leader in the state Senate, has mostly set his sights on the general election fight. His first ad featured his wife giving him a haircut while he touted his conservative record of cutting spending in the state. And he has consolidated support from national conservative groups, Illinois GOP mega-donor Richard Uihlein and GOP Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke prepping run for governor in Texas: report Support for Abbott plunging in Texas: poll White House debates vaccines for air travel MORE (Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulWhite House debates vaccines for air travel Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment MORE (Ky.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeEconomy adds just 235K jobs in August as delta hammers growth Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit Afghanistan fiasco proves we didn't leave soon enough MORE (Utah).
“Generally in a Republican primary, if you are conservative enough and spend the most money ... that’s generally a pretty good path to victory,” the GOP operative said.
But that dynamic has shifted in the final weeks now that three of the four candidates — Rosendale, retired District Court Judge Russ Fagg and businessman Troy Downing — have started buying ad space and launching attacks on one another.
Rosendale is facing some of the same residency attacks that dogged him when he came in third in the 2014 GOP primary for Montana’s at-large House seat. Rosendale moved to Montana from Maryland in the 2000s, but his closest rival, Fagg, has used Rosendale’s contributions from out-of-state donors and the fact that Rosendale isn’t a native Montanan to paint him as an outsider to the state.
“A lot of the attacks that are getting levied at Rosendale I think have been leaving some marks,” said a Montana Republican familiar with the race, noting that the negative attention has come from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Fagg, who regularly brings up his status as a fourth-generation Montanan, has gained ground in the primary. GOP strategists describe Fagg’s support as coming from the state’s “old school establishment,” with endorsements from former governors and congressmen.
Fagg has turned up the heat on Rosendale at both debates and on the airwaves in the final stretch of the primary.
The former judge has targeted Rosendale most recently over the most noteworthy policy divide among the GOP candidates: the death penalty.
In a TV ad earlier this month, Fagg highlighted his support of the death penalty “for illegal aliens that murder.” His campaign slammed Rosendale for opposing capital punishment, even as an overwhelming majority of Montana Republicans support the death penalty.
Rosendale defended his position, pointing to his Catholic faith for why he doesn’t support the death penalty.
While the Club for Growth has mainly spent on ads boosting Rosendale, the conservative group has now gone after Fagg with a $632,000 TV ad buy attacking his judicial record. The ad accuses him of giving a lighter sentence to a defendant who admitted to domestic abuse in 2013.
Fagg pushed backed on what he called “disingenuous tactics,” arguing “out-of-state dark money groups are looking to buy this election for an out-of-state candidate.”
Republicans say while Rosendale still likely has the edge, Fagg has been able to leverage his role as a judge to drum up excitement among base voters who are attracted to Trump’s law-and-order message.
“He’s done a good job as capitalizing on his position as a judge,” said the Montana Republican strategist. “The political environment largely dominated by Trump is very much focused on border issues, illegal immigration.”
The battle between Rosendale and Fagg could create an opening for another candidate.
Downing, who served two combat tours in Afghanistan, has stayed out of the fray so far. He’s sought to frame himself as a political outsider in the mold of Trump. And he’s highlighted his military experience since Montana has the third-highest percentage of veterans per capita in the U.S.
He’s earned notable endorsements, including backing from Lola Zinke, the wife of former Montana congressman and current Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues | Trump Interior Secretary Zinke files to run for Congress, again | Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill MORE, and Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser now awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty for lying to the FBI.
Flynn was slated to campaign for Downing but had to postpone the rally.
Downing has poured in more than $1 million of his own money into the race, while Fagg and Rosendale have raised the most from individual donations.
Montana political observers also haven’t counted out state Sen. Al Olszewski, a doctor who has locked up a considerable amount of support from the party’s grass roots. Some Republicans believe he can peel off some support from Rosendale, since those voters would otherwise naturally gravitate to the state auditor.
They also note that Olszewski is the only candidate from northwest Montana, while the others will likely split the area around Billings.
The eventual Republican nominee will square off against Tester and a Green Party candidate, who could siphon away some of Tester’s more liberal supporters.
Trump has vowed to exact revenge on Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who circulated a memo about misconduct allegations against then-VA secretary nominee Ronny Jackson. Jackson denied the accusations, but eventually withdrew his nomination.
While it remains to be seen how heavily Trump will get involved in Montana’s Senate race, Democrats are hoping Tester’s ability to win tough races — as well as his prominent position on the veterans committee — can carry him through another tough election.
Matt McKenna, who worked on Tester’s 2006 and 2012 campaigns, said that while the dispute with Trump “matters,” he believes it could “helpfully shine a light on an issue that is probably the best one for him. He’s spent 12 years amassing this record of helping veterans.”
But in a deep-red state that Trump won easily in 2016, GOP strategists believe the president’s focus on Montana could be a huge boon — even if an underfunded candidate wins the GOP primary.
“If Donald Trump follows through on his threat to face down with Jon Tester, depending on how often and if he does it effectively, I don’t think it’ll matter which Republican is running,” said the Montana Republican strategist.