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MONTANA’S RED HOT SENATE RACE TAKES CENTER STAGE

Stumbles by the incumbent Democrat, and a showdown among the GOP's 4 candidates, make this a race to watch.
by Matthew Monforton Read Profile arrow_right_alt

For the past year, Montana’s Senate campaign has registered little interest nationwide as Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), running for his third term, had been considered largely unbeatable. That assessment has changed recently. A poll by Axios two weeks ago showed Tester as the most endangered Democrat senator in the country ”“ trailing a generic Republican 42% to 55% in a state where Donald Trump won by 20% in 2016 and remains popular. Add to that the fact that Tester never broke 50% in his prior elections. Then add to that a Green Party candidate who just qualified for the ballot, will take most of his votes out of Tester’s ample hide, and might tip a close race to the GOP.

There are now four candidates in the race, each with entirely different backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses. Last night was their first formal debate, which was sponsored by the Montana State University College Republicans here in Bozeman. Here’s my evaluation of the evening.

***

MATT ROSENDALE: Rosendale went into last night’s debate as the frontrunner and will probably remain so today, and thus had a relatively successful night. He served in the Montana Senate between 2010 and 2016, and was then elected to a 4-year term as State Auditor, making him the only candidate of the four to have won a statewide office. As a legislator, Rosendale racked up a solid conservative voting record and has recently scored endorsements from conservativism’s heavy hitters, including Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and soon to be National Security Advisor John Bolton. He also received an endorsement from Steve Bannon, though that one is strangely missing from the campaign website.

Rosendale’s strategy has been to secure the conservative base without torquing off Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and friends into backing a RINO rival, as they’ve had a habit of doing in other states. And despite protests from true believers like me demanding confrontation with McConnell, Rosendale’s strategy appears to be paying off ”“ at least according to the latest polls.

But a significant majority of Republicans remain undecided and Rosendale’s campaign is not without its weak spots, several of which were spotlighted last night. Rosendale spent much of his life in Maryland before moving to Montana, which is a problem in a state where anyone who wasn’t born in a Montana hospital or, better yet, a log cabin nestled in the Beartooths, spends their campaign dodging the carpetbagger label.

One of the questions Rosendale was asked last night was how it helps Montana Republicans if he beats Tester but creates a vacancy in the State Auditor’s office that Montana’s Democrat governor will get to fill. The obvious answer is that flipping a seat in a narrowly divided U.S. Senate pays national dividends far outweighing the downside of being replaced with a liberal State Auditor.

A more problematic question, one that wasn’t asked, but most certainly will be soon, is how Rosendale justifies asking voters for 4-year term as State Auditor, getting it, and then campaigning for U.S. Senate barely a year into the new job. Few Montanans actually know what the State Auditor does (the office regulates the state’s insurance and securities industries), but they’ll smell a whiff of opportunism, one that will be fanned relentlessly by Democrats.

Nor did Rosendale help himself last night by supporting citizenship for “Dreamers.” Ann Coulter characterizes them as “Nightmares,” a view much closer to that of many Montana Republicans.

These weaknesses may well metastasize throughout other aspects of the general election campaign if Rosendale becomes the nominee. But for now at least, he has an edge in the primary campaign.

RUSS FAGG: Before campaigning for U.S. Senate, Fagg spent two decades as an elected judge in Billings. Which means he has strong name recognition in Montana’s largest county, but less so around the rest of the state.

Much of the MTGOP’s old guard backs Fagg, including former governors such as Marc Racicot, Stan Stephens and the recently deceased Judy Martz, as well as two of Montana’s former at-large congressmen, Denny Rehberg and Rick Hill. They recruited him as an alternative to Rosendale, a man they consider either too conservative or too likely to lose to Tester (or both).

Some of Fagg’s prior pronouncements, as well as the crowd he hangs with, raise concerns about his commitment to a conservative movement that actually moves rather than simply pontificates. For example, when questioned last night on the federal budget deficit, Fagg said we should “cap spending” and pass a 2019 federal budget no larger than the 2018 budget. A nice idea, but at some point he needs to explain how that happens when, as conservatives such as Mark Levin rightly noted after yesterday’s grotesque spending bill sailed through Congress, Fagg’s prospective Republican senate colleagues spend tax dollars like “drunken Marxists.”

All that said, Fagg shined brightly and was a commanding presence throughout the evening. He looks and acts the part of a senator. It’s easy to envision him giving Tester a run for his money in one-on-one debates if he ever gets the chance.

AL OLSZEWSKI: Tester’s reelection depends upon appealing to significant numbers of Trump voters and, of the four candidates, State Sen. Al Olszewski can most plausibly claim to be the kind of populist conservative capable of keeping those voters from crossing over. He has solid pro-life and pro-gun bonafides. And just a few weeks ago, he promised in letters-to-the-editor in Montana newspapers to oppose McConnell for Majority Leader. Besides delighting the hearts of true conservatives like me, Olszewski’s political strategy is really a no-brainer. Most rank-and-file Republicans, and certainly most Trump supporters, detest McConnell and the rest of the GOP leadership in Congress. And Tester’s recent government shutdown votes have shackled him to Chuck Schumer & company ”“ not a good place to be for a Montana Democrat. Olszewski, on the other hand, could run against the congressional leadership of both parties.

The hell-raising rebel who wrote those letters-to-the-editor, however, was nowhere to be seen last night. The Olszewski who showed up instead was a man many of us in the Legislature affectionately called “Dr. Oz,” someone with the calm, well-developed bedside manner of a physician, which is not surprising given that he’s an Air Force-trained surgeon and now a successful orthopedic specialist. That skill will serve him well with the kind of retail campaigning that dominates races in a sparsely populated state like Montana.

Olszewski’s challenge is to fuse Dr. Jekyll (or, rather, Dr. Oz) with Mr. Hyde, i.e., a nice, intelligent guy willing and able to take the fight to the Republican establishment as much as to Democrats. There is clearly room for a conservative populist in this race, and in other states as well. And, frankly, Olszewski may not have much choice. His funding lags behind that of the other 3 candidates, and he lacks their high-powered endorsements. So a guerrilla campaign might be his only real shot at winning the nomination. He needs to make the case that he’s the most likely to beat Tester, and also make the case that he’ll beat the GOP establishment with a tire iron if given the chance.

TROY DOWNING: Troy Downing has the most interesting background of the four candidates. After making his fortune decades ago in what was then a small startup called Yahoo, he joined the Air Force after 9/11 and served two tours in Afghanistan rescuing downed pilots. His story is compelling, though his insertion of “combat veteran” into nearly every answer began to wear thin as the night progressed. Lola Zinke serves as his figurehead campaign manager ”“ a clever way for Montana’s most prominent Republican, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to not-so-subtly support Downing without running afoul of the Hatch Act.

Downing received a gushing review in 2015 in a piece entitled “Troy Downing ”“ Global Innovator Who Calls Fallbrook Home”:

Fallbrook area residents have undoubtedly seen Troy Downing and his family members around town ”“ at local schools or a 4-H event showing animals, but they would never suspect that Downing played a major role in revolutionizing their world. With his early involvement and innovative input in the company Yahoo!, he helped mold and influence how the world uses the Internet. One might expect that a family as successful as the Downings would live somewhere more posh ”“ but they chose the same town the rest of us did ”“ Fallbrook … .One of his greatest passions is the ongoing cultivation of his home vineyard which now boasts 2,000 vines.

There’s just one slight problem, as you might surmise from references to Downing’s “home vineyard.” The town of Fallbrook is in California, not Montana. According to evidence obtained from a search warrant, Downing was a California resident until 2015 but regularly, and fraudulently, obtained for himself and others Montana-resident hunting licenses since 2011.

“Search warrant” is not something you want to see in press reports about your campaign, particularly when the alleged crimes involve fraudulent claims of residency in a state you hope to represent in the U.S. Senate.

It gets worse. Last night, Downing declared the charges are “an attack from the Left,” thereby doubling down on allegations he’s previously made that Montana’s Fish Wildlife and Parks agency is a “deep state” out to destroy a “veteran.”

Among the many problems with this contention is that a Republican prosecutor filed the charges. And trial is scheduled for May 25, two weeks before Montana’s primary. Anything short of acquittal will render him unelectable in a general election, if he isn’t already. Between now and then, however, Downing has Yahoo money up the wazoo, which will be a combustible factor when (not if) the race turns nasty.

***

While many of the questions from the College Republican moderators were fine, there were glaring omissions. Granted, hitting every important issue in two hours with four candidates is a tall order. But no one would have minded the debate lasting an extra half hour and everyone was perturbed by it starting 20 minutes late. Here are some issues that should have been raised last night, and perhaps will be in the next few weeks:

Tariffs ”“ The only mention of Trump’s steel tariffs last night came from Downing, who lauded them as tools to create jobs and protect the nation’s security. Both claims are ludicrous, as the GOP, and the MTGOP in particular, have long recognized. The Montana GOP platform has a free trade provision located, appropriately enough, in the “Agriculture” section of the document:

“The Montana Republican Party recognizes agriculture as the premier industry, creating a tax base that sustains and maintains the Montana State economy. We support free market principles that expand markets for trade.”

Trump’s psychotic trade war is a direct threat to Montana farmers and ranchers, who will soon be among the first casualties of other nations’ inevitable retaliation. But none of Downing’s opponents took him to task on this. The GOP’s apparent abandonment of its free trade principles will not go unnoticed by a Democrat incumbent who looks and acts like a Montana farmer. And if Tester can use the issue to flip some Ag votes, or simply depress turnout in Montana’s conservative rural areas, the eventual GOP nominee’s campaign is doomed.

Attacks on the First Amendment: Christian bakers, photographers, florists, and others whose businesses are being shuttered for refusing to kneel to the LGBT agenda are of enormous concern to many Republicans. Not a word last night about free speech or religious liberties, however, which was particularly puzzling given that the College Republican moderators, more than most others, understand firsthand the tyranny, and religious bigotry, of the Left.

Sanctity of Life: There were no questions about abortion, either. A couple of candidates slipped in the fact that they’re pro-life. But this is 2018. Every GOP candidate is ”“ or claims to be. It would have been nice to hear someone denounce Senate Republicans for (yet again) approving funding for Planned Parenthood earlier yesterday at a time when the Justice Department is investigating its abortion mills for financial transactions involving dismembered, unborn babies.

CSKT Water Compact: Congress will soon decide whether to ratify a compact between Montana and an Indian tribe involving water rights throughout western Montana. Montana’s senators will likely decide its fate. Democrats and the GOP establishment (both in Montana and D.C.) rammed the compact through the Legislature, but it is deeply unpopular with rank-and-file Montana Republicans.

Thinning the Herd: Homage to Trump’s brilliance was the theme of the night and adhered to strictly by all four candidates. Just like in Nevada, where, at Trump’s request last week, Danny Tarkanian dropped out of the GOP senate primary, thereby unifying Nevada Republicans and sparing them a costly primary. All of this raises an interesting question to put to Montana’s four purported Trump fans when (not if) things turn nasty: “If Trump asked you to drop out, thereby maximizing the odds of victory in the fall for another GOP candidate, would you comply?” Maybe someone will ask. Then we’ll see exactly how big of a Trump fan each of them is.

With Trump’s popularity in the state holding steady, Tester’s numbers in the outhouse, and a 4-way saloon shootout a-brewin’ on the other side of the alley, Montana may soon have the most interesting senate race in the nation.

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