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Right-wing congressman to run for Senate in Montana, igniting GOP fight

Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., leaves the Capitol after a vote on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Five House Republicans broke with their party this week to block a Pentagon spending bill from being debated.    (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
By Michael C. Bender New York Times

WASHINGTON — Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana is expected to announce a campaign for Senate as soon as this weekend, torching plans from top Republican officials to avoid a bruising primary battle in a state that many in the party view as their best chance to win back control of the chamber.

Rosendale, an anti-abortion Republican agitator who voted to overturn the 2020 election, plans to formalize his campaign as Montana Republicans gather for their winter meetings this weekend in Helena, according to three people familiar with the deliberations who insisted on anonymity to discuss unannounced plans. A spokesperson for Rosendale declined to comment.

Awaiting the results of the Republican primary is Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is seeking his fourth term. Tester is a top target for Republicans given Montana’s deep-red political complexion: Former President Donald Trump won the state by more than 16 percentage points in 2020.

More traditional Republican leaders in Washington are pushing the already-announced candidacy of Tim Sheehy, a wealthy businessperson seen as a more palatable choice for moderate voters in the general election.

Tester’s fellow Montanan in the Senate, Steve Daines, has tried to clear a path to the nomination for Sheehy from his role as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm for Senate Republicans.

Daines has helped Sheehy secure a lengthy list of endorsements from Republican lawmakers across the party’s political spectrum, including Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who holds the No. 3 position in Senate Republican leadership, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Trump loyalist from Georgia.

A coterie of powerful Republican super political action committees and some of the party’s biggest donors are pouring money behind Sheehy, who was quick to endorse Trump’s 2024 presidential bid and campaigned for him during the Iowa caucuses last month.

But Rosendale, who has long coveted a Senate seat, hasn’t flinched in the face of an intense flex from both sides of the Republican establishment — the deep-pocketed Reagan-era traditionalists as well as the new class of consultants and elected officials who have risen to power alongside Trump.

To win the nomination, Rosendale — who in addition to voting to reverse the 2020 results, has voiced support for banning abortion without exceptions — is banking on his own reservoir of goodwill inside MAGA Nation as well as a base of conservative support in Montana.

In one sign of that grassroots backing, the Montana Republican Party was forced to rescind an invitation for Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump-aligned consultant, to give the keynote speech at the group’s winter meetings after objections inside the party about Bruesewitz’s criticism of Rosendale.

When the Montana Republicans replaced him with Chad F. Wolf, a former Trump administration official, several of Trump’s key advisers objected, including Donald Trump Jr., who wrote on social media that the state party’s snub of Bruesewitz amounted to “leftwing cancel culture.”

Rosendale, 63, has become a well-known figure in Montana after two state legislative races, four statewide campaigns and most recently a U.S. House contest in 2022. In those seven campaigns over 12 years, Rosendale has won five contests and lost two.

One of those losses, notably, was his failed bid in 2018 to win the same Senate seat he wants now. Rosendale finished 3 points behind Tester in that race after narrowly winning the primary with 34% of the vote.

But that Senate bid strengthened his relationship with Trump, who as president made multiple trips to Montana in 2018 to campaign with Rosendale, even though he had initially backed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the 2016 presidential primary.

“I’ve got the president’s ear, he’s got my back, and that’s what people are looking for,” Rosendale said during a debate in his 2020 House race.

But Trump has not endorsed a candidate in the Montana Senate race so far this year, even as he has again waded into other key congressional contests, including Senate races in Arizona and Ohio. Those two states, along with Montana, are seen as among the most competitive contests in the fight for control of the chamber. Republicans need to flip two seats to win back power if President Joe Biden is reelected, but just one if Trump or another Republican captures the White House.

While Trump remains on the sideline in Montana, Rosendale been polishing his own America First credentials, in part by hiring Caroline Wren, a longtime Trump fundraiser who is expected to serve as a key adviser for his Senate campaign.

Last month, Rosendale hosted a series of campaign-style events in Montana with Rep. Matt Gaetz, a provocative and scandal-prone Floridian who maintains close ties to Mar-a-Lago.

Rosendale and Gaetz were part of the small band of Republicans who dethroned Rep. Kevin McCarthy as House speaker, temporarily shutting down business in the chamber. Rosendale had objected to installing McCarthy in the role in the first place, appearing to brush off a phone call on the House floor from Trump, who had rung up Greene to urge his support.

Rosendale also has the backing of Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House strategist who is planning a blitz of campaign events in Montana next month. Rosendale has been a frequent guest on Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, which is popular with conservatives and has often spread misinformation.

Rosendale entered 2024 with $1.7 million in his federal campaign account. That’s about 40% of what he spent against Tester six years ago, but a small fraction of the money that is expected to go into the effort to nominate Sheehy, a retired Navy SEAL who founded an aerial firefighting company.

Two super PACs aligned with traditional Republicans — the Senate Leadership Fund, which has ties to Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, and American Crossroads, which was co-founded by Karl Rove — have each reserved about $22 million in advertising in the state for the general election.

A third super PAC supporting Sheehy, known as More Jobs, Less Government, has been underwritten by a few wealthy Wall Street executives. Kenneth Griffin gave $5 million, Paul Singer contributed $1 million and Stephen A. Schwarzman chipped in $400,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The super PAC has hired Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s longtime pollster, and Andy Surabian, a strategist who has been involved with all three of Trump’s presidential campaigns.

Tester, meanwhile, has kept pace with the surge of Republican spending. His campaign has spent $5 million on an advertising push in the state, and has been aided by two Democratic super PACs, WinSenate and Last Best Place. They have combined for roughly $50 million in spending, most of which are ad reservations for the general election. The two PACs have links to the Senate Majority PAC, the top outside group for Senate Democrats.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.