Montana GOP candidate Rosendale to take on Tester in November

Montana GOP candidate Rosendale to take on Tester in November
© Greg Nash

State auditor Matt Rosendale is projected to win Montana’s GOP Senate primary, setting up the party’s top candidate in the race for a marquee match-up against incumbent Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi looks to squash fight with progressives MORE (D).

The Associated Press called the race for Rosendale at 11:33 p.m. local time. He had been the front-runner in a race that remained largely under the radar.

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He’s won the backing of a handful of powerful national conservative groups, GOP mega-donor Richard Uihlein, and prominent conservative senators like Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHow to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy Cruz calls for 'every penny' of El Chapo's criminal enterprise to be used for Trump's wall after sentencing Conservatives defend Chris Pratt for wearing 'Don't Tread On Me' T-shirt MORE (R-Texas) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump faces new hit on deficit Overnight Defense: US shoots down Iranian drone | Pentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia | Trump mulls Turkey sanctions | Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Health care moves to center stage of Democratic primary fight | Sanders, Biden trade sharps jabs on Medicare for All | Senate to vote on 9/11 bill next week | Buttigieg pushes for cheaper insulin MORE (R-Ky.). And he had the virtue of being the only candidate to have successfully won a statewide campaign in Montana.

But while the race lacked the fireworks of some of the more contentious GOP primaries across the country, Rosendale’s foes landed some punches that could reverberate in the general election.

Rosendale has long faced criticism for moving from Maryland in the 2000s, with former Billings Judge Russell Fagg attempting to frame him as a carpetbagger. Fagg has also blasted Rosendale for not supporting the death penalty.

Democrats have already begun to amplify the attacks Rosendale faced in the primary. American Bridge, the Democratic opposition-research outlet, is running a digital ad targeting GOP voters that points to Fagg's attacks on Rosendale's residency. 

But Republicans are also hammering Tester as a loyal Democrat in the hopes of eroding his support in the red-leaning state. Steven Law, the president of Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, blasted Tester in a statement as a "hyperpartisan obstructionist who has opposed President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE every step of the way."

Businessman and veteran Troy Downing (R) and state Sen. Al Olszewski (R) were also running for the nomination on Tuesday.

Republicans see Montana as a top pickup opportunity, considering President Trump won the state by 20 points in 2016 and Tester has never secured more than 50 percent of the vote in either of his two previous successful Senate bids.

They also are emboldened by Trump’s furor with Tester, the ranking member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, for his role in sinking Trump’s previous Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary nominee.

Tester’s office released a memo outlining various misconduct allegations against White House physician Ronny Jackson, whom Trump had nominated to head the VA. Jackson denied the allegations but ultimately withdrew, prompting Trump to promise revenge on Tester.

But Democrats are confident that Tester, a former head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is more than ready for the challenge and that Tester’s record on veterans’ issues is favorable ground for him.

Updated: 11:45 a.m.