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

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

Mariam Zuhaib/AP

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Mariam Zuhaib/AP

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

Mariam Zuhaib/AP

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

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

Rosendale announced his candidacy in Helena on Friday after running for U.S. Senate. The House Freedom Caucus member is running in a race expected to be one of the most competitive and expensive races in the country.

As Democrats seek to maintain their slim majority in the Senate, Republicans see Montana as a state where they could win 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 Democrat elected statewide after Republicans won every state and federal office in 2020. Former President Donald Trump won the state by just over 16 points that same year.

Sheehy, a former Navy Seal, has already received support from several party leaders. But Rosendale, who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, hopes his embrace of far-right policies and long experience as a state lawmaker will help him win over conservative voters .

“[Sheehy] has gotten a lot of support nationally,” said Jessi Bennion, a political scientist at Montana State University. “However, when you look at the Montana Republican Party and you go to all the small districts and the GOP central committees, he doesn't do it. have it in the bag. This is where Rosendale's support, I see it most, is really at the grassroots level. »

Bennion says Tester's camp would probably prefer to see Rosendale win the primary, given his alignment with the far right. According to Bennion, this would allow the Democrat to differentiate himself more easily. Sheehy, however, is running as a moderate, a political identity Tester has used in previous races to win over an increasingly conservative state.

A conservative who annoys his own party

Rosendale is known for opposing party leadership and resisting a small group of far-right conservatives if their demands are not met. Last year, Rosendale voted to remove former Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House, saying McCarthy violated the trust of his own conference by passing a debt ceiling deal with support from the Democrats.

Rosendale faced harsh criticism for his opposition. When McCarthy later announced that he would retire from Congress, the NRSC issued a statement saying, “A lot of people are starting to wonder if Matt Rosendale isn't a Democrat plant.”

Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who chairs the NRSC, has previously endorsed Sheehy. When requested by CBS NewsLast year, on whether he thought Rosendale should enter the Senate race, Daines said, “If we can avoid a contentious primary, that would be the best thing to do.”

But Rosendale used these criticisms to prove his bona fides as an establishment agitator. In a post Thursday on X, formerly known as Twitter, Rosendale wrote: “Mitch McConnell and the DC cartel are TERRIFIED of me going to the US Senate. They know they can't control me; they know I won't vote for McConnell for leader. But they're about to find out that in Montana we don't take orders from Washington; we send orders to Washington.

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

In 2018, Trump traveled to Montana several times to support Rosendale's unsuccessful attempt to unseat Tester. So far this year, the former president has yet to endorse a Republican Senate candidate.

The GOP seeks a candidate who can unseat the tester

Sheehy seeks to frame his candidacy in a mold that has proven successful for other Republicans elected to statewide offices, describing himself as a successful entrepreneur, such as Daines and current Gov. Greg Gianforte .

Tester, meanwhile, has leaned on his roots, which include being a third-generation farmer, in order to convince voters, Democratic or Republican, that he cares about his state. He built a reputation as a moderate from a rural community and has won elections in Montana since 1998. He is also known for his work on veterans issues, serving as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Veterans.

Bennion says this race will likely be the toughest of Tester's career so far, regardless of who wins the primary, because Montana Republicans have dominated recent elections.

“If Republicans are able to take back this seat, it will be one of the most important things to happen in Montana political history,” Bennion said.

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