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Setting up a bitter Montana GOP primary, Rosendale enters high-profile Senate race

Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 10, 2024.
Mariam Zuhaib
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AP
Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 10, 2024.

Updated February 9, 2024 at 2:57 PM ET

Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale announced he is running for the U.S. Senate, setting up a contentious Republican primary battle against political newcomer, Tim Sheehy.

"Montanans are tired of having direction come from Washington, D.C.," Rosendale said in Helena on Friday after filing as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. "We're going to send orders to Washington, D.C."

Despite some in his own party urging him not to enter the race, Rosendale thinks he is the best candidate to unseat the Montana incumbent Sen. Jon Tester as he seeks a fourth term.

"[Montanans] know they can trust me. I don't just make campaign promises. I actually serve the way I campaign. And that is the refreshing difference they're looking for in their representation," he said.

The House Freedom Caucus member is entering a race that is expected to be one of the most competitive and expensive races in the country.

As Democrats seek to maintain their slim Senate majority, Republicans see Montana as a state where they could pick up a crucial seat by ousting Tester, which could help them regain control of the chamber.

Tester, who has held the seat since 2007, is the only statewide-elected Democrat remaining after Republicans swept every statewide and federal office in 2020. Former President Donald Trump won the state by just over 16 points the same year.

Sheehy, a former Navy seal, has already received the endorsement of several party leaders. In a statement released Friday, Sheehy's campaign compared the Montana businessman to Trump saying they are both successful, "political outsiders," and "conservative warriors."

Trump endorsed him Friday afternoon, calling him "an American hero," and noting that while he has "respect" for Rosendale, "Tim is the candidate who is currently best-positioned to DEFEAT Lazy Jon Tester."

Rosendale, who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, is hoping his embrace of far-right policies and a long record as a lawmaker in the state will help him win over conservative voters.

"[Sheehy] has gotten a lot of endorsements from the national level," Montana State University political scientist Jessi Bennion explained. "However, when you look at the Montana Republican Party and you go to all of the smaller precincts and GOP central committees, he doesn't have it in the bag. That's where Rosendale's support, I see it most, is really at that ground, grassroots level."

Tim Sheehy, founder of Bridger Aerospace and Ascent Vision, pauses during a tour of the company's facility in 2022. Sheehy, a former Navy seal and political newcomer, has already received the endorsement of several Republican party leaders in Montana.
Rachel Leathe / Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP
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Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP
Tim Sheehy, founder of Bridger Aerospace and Ascent Vision, pauses during a tour of the company's facility in 2022. Sheehy, a former Navy seal and political newcomer, has already received the endorsement of several Republican party leaders in Montana.

Bennion says Tester's camp would likely prefer to see Rosendale win the primary, given his alignment with the far right. That, Bennion says, would makes it easier for the Democrat to differentiate himself. Sheehy, however, could be viewed as a moderate, a political identity Tester has used in past races to win over an increasingly conservative state.

A conservative who riles his own party

Rosendale is known for bucking party leadership and holding out with a small group of hard-right conservatives if their demands aren't met. Last year, Rosendale voted to remove former Rep. Kevin McCarthy as House speaker, saying McCarthy violated the trust of his own conference when he passed a debt ceiling deal with the support of Democrats.

Rosendale faced harsh criticism for his opposition. When McCarthy later announced he would retire from Congress, the NRSC released a statement saying, "a lot of people are starting to wonder if Matt Rosendale is a plant from the Democrats."

Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who chairs the NRSC, has previously endorsed Sheehy. On Friday he issued a statement saying, "It's unfortunate that rather than building seniority in the House, Matt is choosing to abandon his seat and create a divisive primary."

Rosendale is hoping the rejection of his senate run by Daines and others will enhance his standing as an establishment agitator. In a post on Thursday on X, formerly known as Twitter, Rosendale wrote, "Mitch McConnell and the D.C. Cartel are TERRIFIED about me going to the U.S. Senate. They know they can't control me; they know I won't vote for McConnell as Leader. But they are fixin' to find out that in Montana, we don't take orders from Washington; we send orders to Washington."

Rosendale has found ardent support for his rebellious stance among some state Republican lawmakers, even before announcing his campaign. Thirty-seven Republican legislators signed a letter back in August saying they back Rosendale because he bucks the party establishment and challenges the status quo.

In 2018, Trump visited Montana several times to support Rosendale's unsuccessful bid to unseat Tester. Daines took aim at that failed attempt on Friday saying, "Republicans cannot risk nominating a candidate who gave Jon Tester the biggest victory of his career."

GOP seeks a candidate who can unseat Tester

Sheehy is seeking to frame his candidacy in a mold that has proven successful for other Republicans elected to statewide office, describing himself as a successful entrepreneur, like Daines and the current Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester arrives to a hearing with the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill on May 18, 2023.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester arrives to a hearing with the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill on May 18, 2023.

Tester, meanwhile, has leaned into his roots, which includes being a third-generation farmer, as a way to convince voters, Democrat or Republican, that he cares about his state. He's built a brand around being a moderate from a rural community and has been winning elections in Montana since 1998. He's also known for his work on veterans issues, serving as chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Bennion says this race is likely to be the hardest of Tester's career so far, regardless of who advances from the primary, as Montana Republicans have dominated recent elections.

"If the Republicans can take this seat back, it will be one of the most consequential things that has happened in Montana political history," Bennion said.

Copyright 2024 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee Ragar
Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.