On paper at least, Montana’s newly drawn Eastern U.S. House district is Matt Rosendale’s to lose.

The incumbent U.S. congressman, elected to represent the whole state by a 12-point margin in 2020, had his re-election bid endorsed by former President Donald Trump in November and by the Montana Republican Party in February, four weeks before the deadline for candidates to file for the June 7 primary.

With Montana’s left-leaning university towns drawn into the Western district, Rosendale is running this year in a heavily Republican-favored district that Trump won by 27 percentage points in 2020. As of his most recent round of campaign finance reporting in late March, Rosendale had more than $1 million available to spend before the Nov. 8 general election.

Even so, the incumbent has drawn a full slate of challengers: three other Republicans, three Democrats, three Libertarians and one independent. (One of the Democratic candidates, Mark Sweeney, died unexpectedly May 6, after primary ballots had gone to print.)

Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Each of the challengers insists they can offer the voters of central and eastern Montana an alternative to Rosendale’s Trump-style Republicanism, with its aggressively partisan rhetoric and focus on wedge issues like Critical Race Theory and a southern border wall. In interviews, campaign materials, and a May 8 debate in Billings, the challengers expressed adamant belief that a critical mass of the district’s voters are hungry for a more idealistic politics.

“The middle in Montana is very large, and people in general are really sick of the parties attacking each other and, in their eyes, not getting things done,” Gary Buchanan, a Billings financial advisor who is gathering signatures in an effort to qualify for the November ballot as an independent, said in an interview.

“They may not know me, but as I say ‘I’m running against Mr. Rosendale,’ it’s ‘give me the pen,'” Buchanan said.

“We’re not as different as the extreme voices would like for us to think we are. We have much, much more in common,” said Penny Ronning, a former Billings City Council member who is campaigning as a Democrat.

“We have to start electing people who are willing to be at the table to talk, discuss and find solutions,” Ronning said. “And that is not Matt Rosendale.”

Rosendale said in an interview that he’s proud to be described as one of the most conservative members of Congress.

“It’s a messy environment up here,” he said. “It really is. And if you don’t have your principles well-heeled within you, then you’re going to sway with the wind.”

He believes Montanans want to be represented by a committed conservative who sticks to his guns, Rosendale added.

“I think that’s exactly why I was elected,” he said. 

ROSENDALE’S RECORD

Rosendale, 61, has charted a rising career in Montana Republican politics over the past two decades. Born and raised in Maryland, he started visiting Montana in the early 1990s, he told MTFP’s MT Lowdown podcast during his 2020 campaign. Drawn to eastern Montana by its “wholesome” lifestyle, he and his family relocated there full-time in 2002 after buying a ranch north of Glendive in 2001.

“They didn’t have any of the big McMansions and elaborate homes,” Rosendale said. “Everybody in the eastern part of the state was still ranching by old-school, by horseback.”

A Rosendale spokeswoman said this week that most of the congressman’s 9,200-acre ranch is currently being worked under an agriculture and grazing lease.

Rosendale, who had worked in his family’s real estate business in Maryland, said he gradually got involved in the community around Glendive, serving as president of a local agricultural association and his parish council. He was elected to the Montana Legislature in 2010, serving a two-year term in the state House and a four-year term in the state Senate. The latter gave him a springboard for an unsuccessful run for U.S. House in 2014 and then a successful bid for state auditor in 2016. Rosendale then ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester as the GOP nominee in 2018 before winning election to Congress during 2020’s Republican sweep of statewide offices.

Since Trump’s rise to prominence in the GOP, Rosendale has embraced the Republican president wholeheartedly, routinely promoting imagery of himself alongside the president, who visited Montana four times in an effort to boost Rosendale during the 2018 campaign against Tester. In 2020, Rosendale touted an endorsement from the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., who said he and Rosendale “have been friends — and hunting buddies — for years.” When the former president called last November to offer the congressmen his endorsement for this year’s re-election campaign, Rosendale wrote on Facebook that he “was surprised and incredibly honored.” 

U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale receives a call from former President Donald Trump Nov. 15, 2021 notifying him of Trump’s decision to endorse Rosendale’s 2022 re-election bid Credit: Courtesy Matt Rosendale

Rosendale was one of 139 Republican representatives who voted against certifying the 2020 election results that made Joe Biden president, even after rioting pro-Trump protesters, egged on by a speech from the then-president, forced lawmakers to suspend the Jan. 6, 2021 count of electoral college votes by breaking into the U.S. Capitol. The day before the vote, Rosendale called for an additional audit of the election returns, claiming, without offering evidence, “widespread, credible allegations of fraud and irregularities in many states.”

Rosendale was one of 21 House Republicans to vote against awarding congressional gold medals to police officers who defended the Capitol building during the riot, which resulted in several deaths. He also joined most Republicans in voting against impeaching Trump over the president’s role in inciting the attack, and then pushed his colleagues to remove Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney from the party’s House leadership after she voiced support for impeachment.

Montana’s congressman has also joined the hardline House Freedom Caucus and has stood to the right of his party on some issues. Rosendale was, for example, one of 14 House Republicans to vote against designating June 19, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S., calling the measure “an effort by the Left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of the country.”

In February, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, Rosendale introduced a bill that would have barred the nation from providing Ukraine with military aid until the completion of a 30-foot steel wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. After the war began, he issued a statement saying the U.S. “has no legal or moral obligation to come to either side in this foreign conflict.” Later, in March, he was one of only three Republicans who opposed a resolution urging support for Ukraine.

Rosendale, who has spent much of his political career railing against the federal debt, also opposed major spending bills over the last two years. He voted with 210 Republicans and two Democrats against the March 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.8 trillion pandemic stimulus package that is routing billions of dollars into the Montana economy. He was also one of 200 Republicans and six Democrats who voted against the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act when it passed the House in its final form last November.

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In a statement explaining his vote on the infrastructure bill, Rosendale acknowledged that the country needs infrastructure investment, but faulted the bill for reaching beyond “hard” projects like roads, bridges and water systems. “This bill is a trojan horse filled with billions of dollars to fund Green New Deal priorities, push the Left’s social justice agenda, and invade Americans’ privacy,” he said.

Rosendale, like other Republicans, has argued that the large spending bills are to blame for inflation. (Many mainstream economists agree, saying the size of American stimulus bills is one reason the U.S. is seeing faster inflation than other wealthy countries.) He also faults national Democrats for rising energy costs and what he calls lax security along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he blames for enabling drug trafficking.

“We had, in our country last year, 105,000 people die from drug overdoses. The vast majority of that was from fentanyl. That’s a chemical attack,” he said in an interview. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has reported similar figures, and notes a rapid rise in overdose deaths in recent years.) 

As he campaigns for re-election, Rosendale has cast his candidacy as an effort to protect Montana’s rural way of life from the alleged dangers of liberal policy advanced by congressional Democrats and the Biden administration.

“Now more than ever, it’s obvious that Democrat leadership in Washington doesn’t care how their actions impact everyday Montanans,” he said in the Jan. 26 statement announcing his re-election bid. “I hope that the people of our state will allow me to continue to stand up for their individual liberties and fight back against the out-of-control spending and government overreach in D.C.”

“Now more than ever, it’s obvious that Democrat leadership in Washington doesn’t care how their actions impact everyday Montanans.”

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Montana

Asked in an interview to name the most important accomplishments of his first term, Rosendale pointed to the 25 bills he’s introduced, including legislation that would tweak prescription drug regulations in an effort to reduce costs, remove grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list, streamline litigation over logging projects in national forests, and authorize hydropower generation along the Sun River.

None of his bills have passed into law this session, Rosendale acknowledged. He said he believes Republicans will win back control of the House from Democrats in this year’s election, making it easier to get traction for those pitches in the next Congress.

“Just because you have a good idea doesn’t mean you get a hearing on it,” he said. “In Washington, D.C., serving in the minority, the majority has no obligation whatsoever to give you a hearing on a bill you’ve introduced. So we’re working at a tremendous deficit.”

NEW HOUSE DISTRICTS

This year’s election is the first since 1990 in which Montana has been allocated two U.S. representatives, the result of population growth that saw the state regain the congressional seat it lost following the 1990 census.

As the independent commission tasked with dividing the state into districts hammered out a new congressional map last year, Democratic commissioners pushed for a map that would group many of the state’s left-leaning communities into the Western district, making it more competitive ground for general election campaigns between Republicans and Democrats. Safe Republican or Democratic seats, competitive district advocates argued, promote hyperpartisanship because their elections are effectively decided in party primaries, encouraging candidates to strike extreme positions in an effort to appeal to their party base rather than build coalitions across the political spectrum.

The new Western district includes the left-leaning university towns of Bozeman and Missoula, as well as Butte, a longtime Democratic stronghold. The Eastern district includes Billings and Great Falls, historically swing communities in statewide elections, as well as the reliably blue state capital of Helena, five Indian reservations and the conservative farm and ranching communities of Montana’s north-central and eastern rural plains. A Montana Free Press analysis of historical voting data found that Eastern district counties have in aggregate voted for Republican candidates in every major statewide race since 2014.

In 2022, the first election using the new districts, Montana Democrats appear to be placing most of their eggs in the Western district basket. A three-way Democratic primary there has seen two candidates raise more than $500,000 to fuel their campaigns, with the third raising nearly $95,000 as of March 31. No Democrat actively campaigning in the Eastern district had cracked $100,000 in reported fundraising.

REPUBLICAN CHALLENGERS

None of Rosendale’s challengers in the Republican primary have reported notable fundraising to the Federal Elections Commission, which requires periodic finance reports from candidates who’ve raised more than $5,000. But each says that what they lack in cold, hard campaign cash they’ll make up for in heart.

“It shouldn’t take money to win an election, because people should be voting for the person,” Kyle Austin, a Billings-based pharmacist, said in an interview.

Like the two other Republican challengers, Helena environmental contractor Charles Walking Child and Bozeman resident James Boyette, Austin is carving out a comparatively centrist profile.

“It shouldn’t take money to win an election, because people should be voting for the person.”

Republican candidate Kyle Austin

Austin, 39, a Billings-based pharmacist who grew up on a farm outside Havre, has spent much of the last year traveling the state running mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics. He’s critical of Rosendale’s personal history, noting that the congressman didn’t grow up around Montana agriculture, but bought his ranch after a real estate career on the East Coast. With the national Farm Bill up for renewal next year, he said, he thinks the state would be better served by someone who has lifelong experience with the issues facing the state’s farm and ranch businesses.

“You haven’t grown up here, you haven’t seen the growth that is going on in like Bozeman, Missoula, Billings, you don’t understand the impact of higher housing costs, of what the big influx of population is causing to the people who grew up here and maybe have had their house for 90 years,” he said. “Out-of-state people like Rosendale don’t understand that.”

Walking Child, an Anishinaabe tribal member, and Boyette, who moved to Bozeman from Idaho in 2020, are similarly critical of the incumbent.

“I am for Montanans, and it’s about time for Montanans to stand up to these national politicians who are being planted in every state of the United States,” Walking Child said in a campaign video posted to his Facebook page.

“I just feel like all across the country we’re having all of these people elected into office that are promising one thing and don’t follow through,” Boyette said.

DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGERS

On the Democratic side of the ticket, Ronning, the former Billings council member, is facing Skylar Williams, a 24-year-old progressive Democrat who also hails from Montana’s largest city, where he works as a security guard and part-time carpenter.

Williams, who is Chippewa Cree, grew up on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation and in Billings. He says his working-class background and a stint of childhood homelessness, would help him represent the state effectively. He said at a May 8 candidate forum that he’s running because he wants someone in Congress who’s pushing harder on education, health care and climate change. 

“We’re not getting any of those things done,” Williams said, saying he feels poorly represented by Rosendale. “There is no leeway — there is only partisanship with him,” he said.

Ronning, 59, the only woman in the race, served a four-year term on the Billings City Council that concluded last year. She is also a founder of a Billings-based anti-human trafficking task force that has worked to bring businesses, community leaders and law enforcement officials together to address sex trafficking. Arguing for her effectiveness, she cites her group’s lobbying for bills passed by the 2019 Montana Legislature that funded state anti-trafficking agents and tightened the state’s anti-prostutution law so it is easier to apply to illicit massage parlors.

Ronning locates her political roots in her Billings upbringing as the child of a father who owned a Grand Avenue restaurant, The Happy Diner, and a career federal civil servant mother who often brought her daughter to work in downtown’s James F. Battin federal building. That experience, Ronning said in an interview, taught her respect for the value of government and what it means to work for taxpayers.

“Federal government, to me, wasn’t some mystical magical thing. It wasn’t some entity. It was people. It was people doing a job,” Ronning said in an interview.

Eastern district Democratic U.S. House candidates Penny Roning (left) and Skylar Williams (right) on stage at a candidate forum hosted by Forward Montana in Billings May 8. Credit: Courtesy Forward Montana

Her decision to run for Congress, Ronning said, came after a trip to Washington, D.C. in 2020. She had been invited to attend a White House human trafficking summit hosted by the Trump administration, then was contacted by Tester’s office, which offered her a ticket to sit in on a two-hour portion of Trump’s first impeachment trial, which centered on allegations that the president had sought to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless Ukrainian leaders helped his re-election bid by announcing an investigation into Joe Biden. Ronning attended the trial with a staffer from the office of Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, she said, then found herself aghast when she counted 13 U.S. senators absent and others visibly dismissive of the proceedings.

“What I was watching, to me, was imperative to the health and well-being of our democracy,” she said. “These elected officials should have been feeling the same. And so what I saw was moral decay in suits.”

“Government is supposed to be the tool that operates in a way that invests back in Americans, helps build community.”

Democratic candidate Penny Ronning

Ronning is also critical of Rosendale’s policy record, faulting him for voting against bills that would put federal dollars toward purposes like supporting Montana agriculture.

“He’s just done nothing to help rural Montana,” she said. “Government is supposed to be the tool that operates in a way that invests back in Americans, helps build community, helps invest in and build up food sources.”

The third Democrat listed on Eastern district ballots, Sweeney, was a state senator from Philipsburg whose sudden May 6 death came after ballots had been printed. If he wins the Democratic primary posthumously, state law and party rules require the party to select a replacement candidate via a nominating convention.

LIBERTARIAN AND INDEPENDENT CHALLENGERS 

Also in the race are three Libertarian candidates: Billings attorney and realtor Sam Rankin, who is campaigning largely on campaign finance reform; self-described “Liberterian gadfly” Roger Roots; and Missoula resident Samuel Thomas. Both Rankin and Roots have made previous bids for elected office, while Thomas is a political newcomer. (Historically, Montana Libertarian candidates have attracted single-digit vote percentages in statewide campaigns.)

Rounding out the race without any party affiliation is Buchanan, the signature-gathering independent.

Unlike Rosendale’s other challengers, Buchanan, 73, has been involved in Montana politics for decades, periodically serving in state economic development posts under Democratic and Republican governors. He helped create the Montana Department of Commerce and served as its first director under Democratic Gov. Ted Schwinden. He’s touted bipartisan endorsements from some of the state’s leading old-guard political figures, including former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot and Dorothy Bradley, a longtime Democratic lawmaker who narrowly lost to Racicot in the 1992 election for governor.

Independent Congressional candidate Gary Buchanan (left) stands with endorsers Dorothy Bradley, Lisa Cordingley and Marc Racicot outside the Montana Capitol at a campaign event on April 8, 2021. Credit: Eric Dietrich / Montana Free Press

Buchanan, who founded Billings financial planning firm Buchanan Capital, argues there’s “an eight-lane highway” down the middle of Montana politics with plenty of space for an independent candidate to make electoral inroads. He said in an interview that he’s hearing a lot of frustration about how Democrat-backed spending has overstimulated the economy, driving inflation. At the same time, he faults Rosendale for leaning into “a theme of fear” on topics like border control.

“I think his rhetoric creates an advantage for me, who’s trying to appear more moderate,” Buchanan said. “I think I’m a better listener. I just don’t think Montana is where he’s at.”

Buchanan cited Rosendale’s outlier stance as one of only three Republicans opposing the pro-Ukraine resolution in March as the deciding factor in his decision to file for office. He also said he believes Rosendale’s policy record compares poorly to Montana’s U.S. senators.

“Daines and Tester can actually talk about the things that they’re doing. I don’t hear those things from Rosendale. I see negativity and attacks,” Buchanan said.

“Daines and Tester can actually talk about the things that they’re doing. I don’t hear those things from Rosendale. I see negativity and attacks.”

Independent candidate Gary Buchanan

Rosendale’s campaign and the Montana GOP have responded to Buchanan’s candidacy by dismissing him as a Democrat in independent clothing. They’ve also argued that voters should discount Buchanan’s endorsement by Racicot, who was Montana’s governor from 1993 to 2001 and then served as chair of the Republican National Committee under President George W. Bush, because the former governor has in recent years become vocally anti-Trump.

“Attempting to tout the endorsement of Governor Racicot to appear more moderate proves that Buchanan would just be another vote for Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer if elected,” the Montana GOP said in an April 8 release, referring to the president, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, all Democrats.

Buchanan told MTFP last month that he’ll decide which party to caucus with in Congress after the election if his campaign is successful.

According to campaign finance records available through the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices and the Federal Elections Commission, Buchanan has donated to both Democratic and Republican candidates. His history includes a $1,000 donation to Tester’s 2006 Senate campaign, $500 to Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’s 2002 re-election campaign, and $250 to Democrat Brian Schweitzer’s 2000 U.S. Senate bid. Buchanan also gave donations totalling $1,600 to Republican Greg Gianforte in 2016 and $100 to Republican Rick Hill in 2012 during their respective runs for governor against Democrat Steve Bullock.

Additionally, FEC records indicate that Buchanan’s wife, Norma, donated $100 through the ActBlue platform this year to Western district Democratic U.S. House candidate Monica Tranel.

In order to qualify for the ballot without a party affiliation, Buchanan needs to gather 8,722 voter signatures by May 31. He said May 16 that he thinks “we’ve got a real good shot to get on” the ballot, but that he expects his volunteers will be working “right up to the deadline.”

IS PURPLE STILL POSSIBLE?

Whether any of Rosendale’s challengers will find the traction to sell Eastern district voters on their more centrist visions for Montana politics is perhaps the district’s defining political question as the candidates campaign through the June 7 primary toward the Nov. 8 general election.

Buchanan acknowledged that the initial support his campaign is finding is largely among older voters in Billings and Helena, many of them long-term residents in their 50s, 60s and 70s who look back on Montana’s historically purple politics with a touch of nostalgia. If he makes the ballot, he said, his biggest challenge will be reaching out into rural areas and winning support from younger voters.

Ronning, for her part, argued that it’s a mistake to assume the Republican Party has an unshakable hold on the district.

“Historically, eastern Montana, and Montana in general, has always voted for a person over a party,” she said, citing the political success of Democrats like Baucus, Tester, Schweitzer and Bullock. “We’ve never just voted straight party. That’s just not who Montana is.”

She acknowledged that Trump-style politics have appeal for many of the district’s voters, saying she believes us-versus-them messaging can attract people when they’re struggling financially, or facing challenges like drought or medical issues that can make them feel like they’ve lost control of the problems in their lives.

“A message that’s going to appeal to people is, ‘Your problems are the result of that group over there,’” she said.

“The reality is that messaging pits American against American,” she said. “And we are not each others’ enemy. We are each others’ solution. We are each others’ neighbor.”

As neighbors from across eastern Montana head to the polls this year, they’ll have a chance to decide whether the bipartisan idealism expressed by Ronning, Buchanan and the other Rosendale challengers still has a toehold on the Montana plains. Or, alternatively, to prove the incumbent correct in his belief that a critical mass of Montana voters are in fact hungry above all else this year for his brand of dependable partisanship.

“I am representing the state exactly how my constituents expect me to,” Rosendale said.

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Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.