By Jim Ellis
Aug. 2, 2017 — Republicans have been working to recruit a top-tier challenger to two-term Sen. Jon Tester (D), and yesterday they identified such an individual. Montana Commissioner of Insurance and State Auditor Matt Rosendale announced that he will join the Republican primary, vying to become the party nominee and oppose Sen. Tester in the next election.
Rosendale was first elected to his statewide position just last November, so he is quickly making the move for federal office. Prior to running for auditor, he served a term in the state House of Representatives and a pair of consecutive two-year stints in the state Senate, representing the Glendive area in Montana’s far eastern sector. In the 2015-16 session, Rosendale was the Senate Majority Leader.
In 2016, he ran to succeed Democratic Auditor Monica Lindeen who was ineligible to seek a third term. Rosendale defeated former state Rep. Jesse Laslovich (D), 54-46 percent, from an electorate of more than 486,000 voters.
But, defeating Sen. Tester will be no easy task. Republicans have always believed the Montana seat would become one of its top national targets, but Tester has performed well during his tenure. In 2002, he defeated three-term Sen. Conrad Burns (R) after the latter was declared to be under federal investigation, a legal matter that didn’t come to fruition and was dropped after he lost the election. Even with the legal cloud over Burns’ head, he only lost to Tester by just over 2,800 votes, a margin of less than one percentage point within an electorate of over 404,000 people.
The new senator then made the most of his first term, and won a four-point victory over at-large US Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Billings) even though Mitt Romney was carrying Montana by 13-plus points against President Obama. Yet, in Sen. Tester’s two victories he has failed to win with majority support either time.
The senator’s 2012 campaign attracted national attention with his ads showing that he transports Montana steaks when he travels to Washington for legislative session. The humorous ad showed him getting the steaks through the TSA scanners at the local Montana airport, thus giving him the folksy, approachable image that the campaign sought.
Since then-Rep. Rehberg was unable to take advantage of a strong Romney win at the top of the ticket, the political climate may be a bit more difficult for Montana Republicans next year with Sen. Tester leading the ballot. Though the state is viewed as being heavily Republican, Democrats can still do well here. Aside from re-electing Sen. Tester, Montana has a two-term Democratic governor and controlled all of the statewide offices except attorney general through the beginning of this year.
As we found in the at-large special election campaign to succeed Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Whitefish), who was appointed as US Interior Secretary, the Democrats remain competitive in Big Sky Country. Republican businessman Greg Gianforte (R-Billings) defeated local musician Rob Quist (D), 50-44 percent, before a special election turnout (381,416 voters) that exceeded the 2014 mid-term election participation factor by more than 13,000 individuals.
Republicans wanted one of their statewide officials to challenge Sen. Tester and, in auditor Rosendale, the GOP has its man. It remains to be seen whether Rosendale, who would lead the Republican office seekers assuming he wins the party nomination, will be able to convince the electorate to go so far as unseating Sen. Tester in his favor.