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Montana GOP Senate primary draws high-profile attention

Posted at 6:30 PM, Jan 29, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-30 11:57:02-05

BOZEMAN — While Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester prepares to seek another term, the race among Republicans wanting to replace him is still unsettled.

Over the last week, there’s been a growing chorus of national media stories suggesting that U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale is inching closer to announcing a run for U.S. Senate – but so far, there’s still been no official announcement from Rosendale.

That continued over the weekend, as Rosendale held four events around Montana with U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida. The two men visited Bozeman on Friday, then Townsend, Helena and Joliet.

Rosendale dubbed the events “The Truth Tour,” saying he wanted to give Montanans’ his view of what’s happened in Congress over the last year – particularly his ongoing concerns about continuing resolutions and budget deals that he says haven’t done enough to curb federal spending. But Gaetz – who, like Rosendale, has become known for pushing back against House GOP leadership – made clear he had another goal as well.

“I woke up in Florida this morning and flew to Montana in January to try to convince my friend Matt Rosendale to run for the United States Senate,” he told MTN Friday. “I am on a mission to change Washington, and one of the best things we could do to send a shock to the system, to the establishment of both political parties is to get Matt in this race for the Senate.”

Gaetz said “weak-kneed” Republicans in the Senate were to blame for stymying some of former President Donald Trump’s policies, and having Rosendale in the Senate would provide a stronger conservative voice on issues like the budget and border security.

Rosendale again told MTN Friday he was not ready to make a final decision on the Senate, but that he felt overwhelming support at events like this one – and that support would play a big role in his decision. He said Republican leaders were pressuring him not to jump into the Senate race.

“That's not an assumption; that's a fact,” he said. “They have taken steps to try and elevate someone else that is Mitch McConnell's pick in order to be the next senator from the state of Montana, and they have made absolute efforts to try and keep me out of this race. And I have always said the people from Montana – the voters around Montana – are going to decide who the next senator is going to be.”

That other candidate – who Rosendale generally didn’t refer to by name Friday, but Gaetz did at several points – is Gallatin County businessman and Navy veteran Tim Sheehy. Sheehy has already received support from top Montana Republicans like Gov. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, as well as from the National Republican Senatorial Committee – the national campaign arm for Senate Republicans, which U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is chairing.

Sheehy has also been touting his own national endorsements, from Republican senators like Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, and most recently from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia. He also made a trip to Iowa on Trump’s behalf during the caucuses earlier this month. While speaking at a caucus in Redfield, Iowa, he encouraged GOP voters to get behind the former president.

“This is going to be the most important vote of your lifetime,” he said in a video posted to social media. “We need to unite behind Trump, stop wasting our money and time with this messy primary, get him on the ballot so we can win in 2024. Make America Great Again.”

The NRSC also sent out a release last week, pointing to another poll, conducted on behalf of a super PAC, that showed Sheehy opening up a large lead over Rosendale in a potential primary.

So far, the only Republican candidate who’s filed with the Montana Secretary of State to get on the primary ballot is former Secretary of State and Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson. Johnson is also critical of GOP leaders, saying he’s facing a “David and Goliath” struggle because they’ve lined up behind other candidates. However, he said when filing earlier this month that he would stand by his conservative record and his long experience in Montana politics.

“Having decided to seek election to the United States Senate is probably one of the most important and, frankly, difficult decisions that I've made in my entire time in politics – and understand, that's decades,” he said. “It is important enough that I wanted to be here in person to underscore my commitment to pursuing this race with enthusiasm and vigor. I think we're going to prevail; I think the people are going to see that I'm the real deal.”

The last day for any candidate to file and get on the primary ballot is March 11.