Of the 26 bills that U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale has introduced since arriving in Congress in 2020, none has received a hearing. The same can be said for all but a small number of the hundreds of bills he’s cosponsored — a not uncommon record for a freshman representative in the minority party. He’s been a “No” vote on each of the Biden administration’s major legislative priorities, spending packages, and even on some bills — like a resolution to support the people of Ukraine, on which Rosendale was one of just three opposed — where most of his own caucus joined with the chamber’s slim majority of Democrats. 

Rosendale describes himself as a diligent defender of taxpayer dollars and a bulwark against government growth whose bills will get traction if Republicans take the House in Nov. 8’s election, a distinct possibility — if not probability. At the onset of his 2020 campaign, he positioned himself as a warrior in the battle against “the Democratic establishment and their socialist agenda.”

That record has fueled a slate of challengers in the race for Montana’s newly created eastern U.S. House district who say voters want an alternative to the incumbent’s uncompromising dogmatism. The district is a sprawling geographic two-thirds of Montana that includes Helena, Great Falls, Billings, most Native American reservations in the state, and vast swaths of sparsely populated but deeply conservative prairie. Montana has had a single at-large House district since the 1990 census, but regained a second seat after the 2020 count. 

Carrying the mantle for Democrats is Penny Ronning, a former Billings City Council member and advocate for victims of sexual abuse. 

Flying no banner but his own is Gary Buchanan, a Billings financial adviser with a varied career in mid-level state government. 

Libertarian Sam Rankin is also on the ballot.

Both Buchanan and Ronning say Rosendale isn’t showing up for Montanans, and that even conservatives want a voice willing to act in Congress, not just stand in opposition.

“We have to start electing people who are willing to be at the table to talk, discuss and find solutions,” Ronning told Montana Free Press at the beginning of her campaign. “And that is not Matt Rosendale.” 

Rosendale, an incumbent running in a district that Donald Trump would have won by 27 points in 2020, is expected by most observers to take the seat easily. But Buchanan and Ronning — when they’re not campaigning against one another — contend that they present visions for Montana and the federal government that are more aligned with the district’s voters, no matter the numbers. 

“Rosendale’s taking it for granted on the campaign as he has in Congress,” Buchanan said.

Even with the odds in his favor — the Cook Political Report’s partisan voter index rates the district R+16 — Rosendale has put up a prodigious fundraising effort, bringing in more than $2 million since the beginning of 2021 and having spent about half that, though his campaign hasn’t reported any disbursements since the end of June. Ronning, who’s running an avowedly low-budget campaign, has raised only about $134,000, and enters the campaign’s final stretch with about $23,000 on hand. Buchanan, after a late entry into the race, has raised $563,000, including a $25,000 personal loan, and still has about $221,000.

MATT ROSENDALE’S RECORD

Rosendale, a realtor by trade, came to Montana from his home state of Maryland in 2002 and bought a ranch north of Glendive, where he began to establish himself on community boards and associations. He ran for Legislature as part of a Tea Party wave in 2010 and went on to serve one state House and two state Senate terms consecutively. In his final session, he was among the Republicans who voted unsuccessfully against Medicaid expansion in Montana.

In 2014 he ran for Congress but, along with future Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, fell in the primary to Ryan Zinke, who went on to win the seat and is now running for the state’s new western district House seat. Rosendale positioned himself on the right flank of the field, attacking Zinke for his comparatively moderate view on abortion restrictions. One campaign ad depicted Rosendale shooting a “government drone” out of the sky.

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

His next act came in 2016, when he successfully ran for Montana state auditor — often a starter office for candidates with broader political ambitions. As auditor, he cut operating costs, shrank the agency and scored a policy win with the establishment of a reinsurance program that helped stabilize coverage costs. The program was made possible by waivers established under the Affordable Care Act, which Rosendale has since shown enthusiasm to repeal.  

His office came under scrutiny for dropping an enforcement action against a Billings bail bond company whose owners and employees donated $13,000 to his 2016 campaign, though his chief legal counsel, Kris Hansen, took credit for the decision. He also faced criticism for his promotion of short-term health insurance plans, which are exempt from the ACA’s ban on excluding people with pre-existing conditions. 

In the Legislature, as auditor, and into his congressional tenure, Rosendale has been a champion of direct patient care agreements, which allow patients to pay providers directly for health care services — “an effective way to increase access to preventative care and primary care physicians at a much lower cost,” he told MTFP in September. Such arrangements were authorized by the 2021 Legislature, and Rosendale introduced a bill in Congress to do the same at the federal level, though it hasn’t gained traction.

In 2018 Rosendale ran for U.S. Senate, winning the primary but losing to longtime incumbent Democrat Jon Tester. He finally found a path to D.C. in 2020, nabbing an endorsement from Trump and soundly defeating Democrat Kathleen Williams in a year that saw Republicans take every statewide office in Montana. 

He immediately established himself in the Trump wing of the GOP. Four days after he was sworn into office, Rosendale joined 138 of 212 Republican representatives in voting against certification of the 2020 election results.

“It is clear that there are widespread, credible allegations of fraud and irregularities in many states, and that these allegations have endangered the American people’s faith in our electoral process,” he said at the time. 

In September 2021, Rosendale received $5,800 in campaign donations from Julie Fancelli, daughter of the founder of Florida-based Publix grocery stores and a major financial backer of the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021. And while he voted in favor of an earlier version of the measure, Rosendale was ultimately among the 21 House Republicans who voted against giving congressional gold medals to the U.S. Capitol police, explaining through a spokesperson at the time that he felt the bill was “playing politics” with the events of Jan. 6. He’s since opposed a congressional investigation into the Capitol riot.

“Let’s go to the actual cause of the problem, which was a lack of security, instead of trying to figure out who happened to be on the Capitol that day, because it was tens of thousands of individuals just participating in a rally,” Rosendale told MTN News this January.

Rosendale, along with most of his caucus, has voted against big-ticket White House initiatives like the American Rescue Plan Act and the infrastructure bill, the latter of which he called “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’s found a home with the far-right House Freedom Caucus, a group that includes pro-Trump firebrands like Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, Florida’s Matt Gaetz and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene. His voting record has earned him a 98% score with the conservative Heritage Foundation, 8 points higher than the average House Republican, making him one of the caucus’ most stringent ideologues.

“I will continue fighting against this administration and its irresponsible policies, if re-elected.”

Incumbent Montana U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale

He repeatedly voted against American aid to Ukraine, and in February introduced the “Secure America’s Borders First Act,” which would prohibit federal assistance to the country until Trump’s southern wall is completed. Rosendale has said that the U.S. needs to harden its border and address the trafficking of fentanyl before coming to the aid of a foreign nation the U.S. “has no legal or moral obligation” to help. 

He was one of only 13 House lawmakers, all Republicans, who voted against designating Juneteenth, which commemorates a milestone in the end of slavery in the U.S., as a federal holiday. 

He voted against legislation that would put protections for same-sex and interracial marriages in statute and against a series of bills to protect access to abortion and contraception in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling. While he hasn’t said whether he’d support a national abortion ban proposed by Republican South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and endorsed by Republican Montana Sen. Steve Daines, he said he agrees with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. In response to questions from MTFP in September, he said he supports “pro-life legislation that protects life beginning at conception.” 

(Both Ronning and Buchanan have said they would support codifying abortion protections in statute if elected.)

Despite multiple requests, Rosendale’s campaign did not make the incumbent available for an interview by publication time. 

Aside from direct patient care and the border bill, the 26 pieces of legislation Rosendale has introduced include several health care and prescription pricing reforms, a proposal to remove grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies from the federal endangered species list, and one to authorize hydropower generation on the Sun River. On the more ideological side, he’s proposed to withhold federal funding from jurisdictions that “disempower or defund” law enforcement agencies. 

He also co-sponsored a bill this summer that would roll back the Pittman-Robertson Act, which establishes a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition that funds state conservation efforts. His position on the bill is at odds with firearms and hunting groups including the National Rifle Association and the Montana Sportsmen Alliance. The tax, he argued during an October debate in Great Falls, infringes on Second Amendment rights. 

“That is the only right that we have that gets taxed at the federal level,” he said in the debate. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Rosendale has framed his congressional tenure as one of active resistance to Biden administration policies, and frequently critiques Democrats as a tax-and-spend party that’s tanking the economy and smuggling “woke” ideology into law. 

“When we start looking at legislation that has the Green New Deal involved in it, it has gender sensitivity training in it, when we see that it provides for additional expansions of government, we had $5 trillion worth of new spending that was piled up on the back of taxpayers across this nation last year,” he said at a debate in October. “And that is not why I was sent to Washington, D.C. I think that the people across the state of Montana have asked me to stand up and be their voice and not to just sign off on a piece of legislation so that they can get a crumb off of the table.”

In September, he told MTFP that he promised voters he’d oppose bad legislation, and that he’s done just that. His top priority, he said, is to continue keeping his promise to hold government accountable.

“I will continue fighting against this administration and its irresponsible policies, if re-elected,” he said.

PENNY RONNING’S GOAL

Early in her campaign, Ronning held a fundraising dinner at Benny’s Bistro, a restaurant in Helena, she recalled at a town hall she hosted in the capital last month. As she was unloading her car, a restaurant employee noted something was missing.

“All the good politicians have balloons,” Ronning said the employee told her. 

Ronning is the first to admit that she’s not a particularly gifted politician, at least not in the traditional sense. Her team is made up of relative amateurs. She doesn’t, she said, have the phone number of former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock or his lieutenant, Mike Cooney. 

“I don’t do call time,” she said at the Helena town hall. “I don’t actively seek out money from big donors. I’m not one of those people that actively, hardcore goes after endorsements.” 

She’s made campaign finance reform a key focus of her campaign – and that, she says, means walking the walk.

Former Billings City Council member Penny Ronning is running as a Democrat in the eastern U.S. House district primary. Credit: Courtesy of Penny Ronning campaign

“A campaign costs money, no two ways around it,” she said. “But I’m a strong believer that in a state with a little over a million people, elections shouldn’t cost $1 million. I firmly believe that you earn votes, you don’t buy votes.”

Whether earning or buying, she faces an uphill battle to topple Rosendale in a solidly Republican district. That’s especially true without any significant financial support from national Democrats. But as Democrats in Montana tend to argue, she said she can bridge the gap to GOP voters and “move the country forward in a dynamic and viable way.”

Rosendale, she said, has effectively defected from the district, putting the national party’s ambitions and his own above those of constituents. People in the eastern district have problems — rising costs of living, limited access to mental and physical health care, substance abuse, missing and murdered Indigenous persons — and want the government to do something about it, she said.

“He has not represented the district,” Ronning told MTFP. “I don’t see him. I’ve put 22,000-plus miles on my car since February. The only two times I’ve seen the guy is when I’m debating him.”

The child of a forensic accountant with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a restaurant owner, Ronning has lived in Montana since she was 7. Growing up around public employees taught her that the “government is your neighbor,” she said. She recalls being shocked when, in 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan said the “most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

Ronning was elected to the Billings City Council in 2016 following several years of community service, including as a court-appointed special advocate for victims of sexual assault. 

“Human trafficking and sexual violence has been a part of my life and sadly my family’s life,” she told MTFP. “It is a personal family story that brought me into this work. My mom was a victim of really horrendous sexual violence as a child.”

In 2016, she co-founded the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force, which works with other community entities to combat sex trafficking. With Ronning at the helm, the group successfully lobbied the Legislature in 2019 to fund additional investigators and crack down on prostitution associated with massage parlors.

“I don’t do call time. I don’t actively seek out money from big donors. I’m not one of those people that actively, hardcore goes after endorsements.”   

Eastern district Democratic U.S. House candidate Penny Ronning

Ronning points to those accomplishments and her work with conservatives on city council — officially a nonpartisan body — to establish an energy conservation board as evidence of her ability to make effective bipartisan policy. The effort initially stalled, she said, due to a misconceived association with national Democrats’ green energy policies. But she was able to decouple the initiative from the partisan context and get the rest of the council on board, she said.

“It’s not about political parties, it’s about a willingness or desire to get a good result,” Ronning said. 

The eastern district, she said, is predominantly rural, and suffers from issues common to rural communities — lack of health care providers, spotty broadband and poverty. It also contains Montana’s first- and third-largest cities, Billings and Great Falls, whose residents’ fortunes are intertwined with their rural neighbors, she said. 

“The way our tax structure is set up, our urban areas are in many ways absorbing and paying for the issues that are happening with the rural communities,” she said. “These communities impact one another. We’ve got to start addressing a lot of these systemic problems.”
Ronning said she’s received plenty of help from the state party, even if its attentions are largely focused on the more competitive western district. But she said she’s felt some pressure from naysayers and pundits to drop out in favor of Buchanan, an arguably more viable candidate in a ruby-red district.

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“When we hear folks say their highest goal is simply to get rid of Rosendale, I would challenge them to get another goal,” she said. 

Buchanan, she said, would be just one more millionaire in Congress. At the October debate, she took aim at his stated opposition to federal student loan relief efforts, and attacked his decision to run as an independent, saying he’d be unable to get the committee assignments necessary to influence policy in Congress. (In an October debate, Buchanan pledged to caucus with neither major party, explaining that there are “a number of caucuses” other than party conferences).

She’s running for a higher purpose than to unseat Rosendale, she said: to “move the state and country forward.” 

And that’s something she contends that Buchanan, lacking the infrastructure of a political party, wouldn’t be able to do.

“I’m someone that can actually build seniority, get committee positions, someone that can actively move in the way the country is moving, someone who understands the issues, someone who has co-authored and passed policy, but also someone that understands that government and private business are two different things,” she said, taking a swing at Buchanan’s lengthy career in the private sector. “Government is about service. Private business is about profit.”

GARY BUCHANAN‘S END RUN

Gary Buchanan didn’t get the 8,700 signatures necessary to make it onto the ballot without a party affiliation — he delivered 15,000 — until mid-June, with the dust of the primaries already settled. But his campaign started off with a bang, promoting endorsements from longtime Montana political fixtures on both sides of the aisle. 

Competitive independent candidates are a rarity, and successful ones even more so, even in a politically idiosyncratic state like Montana. But some powerful players have identified Buchanan as the best bet to retire Rosendale. In August, the state’s largest labor union, the Montana Federation of Public Employees — an organization generally associated with the Democratic Party — bucked expectations by endorsing  Buchanan, citing his opposition to right-to-work labor legislation and tenure as a state employee. 

(Ronning, a former unionized flight attendant, said the endorsement was a “gut punch”).

“While I’m not willing to say that we considered electability, I am willing to say that our board considers Gary a good bet that has a good chance to win,” MFPE President Amanda Curtis, a former Democratic lawmaker and public school teacher, said at the time. 

He’s also received an endorsement from the Montana Sportsmen Alliance due largely to Rosendale’s opposition to the Pittman-Robertson Act. 

Compared to Ronning, Buchanan has made toppling Rosendale a significant focus of his campaign. He decided to enter the race, he said, because of Rosendale’s votes on Ukraine and medals for Capitol police. 

“I heard from law enforcement that they resent that,” he told MTFP.

U.S. House candidate Gary Buchanan, who is running as an independent, at a rally outside the state Capitol in Helena April 8, 2022. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Buchanan has held a variety of state positions going back to the 1980s, including seats on the Montana Banking Board, Montana Board of Investments and the Board of Crime Control. He was the inaugural director of the state Department of Commerce under Gov. Ted Schwinden, a Democrat. In 2002, he founded Buchanan Capital, a financial management firm. 

“I’ve split my ticket and voted independently for my entire voting career,” he said. “I’ve served half a dozen Republican and Democrat governors. I’m a bona fide independent.”

Ideologically, Buchanan has struck a center-right tone somewhere between Rosendale and Ronning. On one side, he said, Rosendale paints him as a closet Democrat. On the other, Ronning calls him a closet Republican. He supports access to abortion and says he has full faith in the state and country’s election systems. He’s also said both parties in D.C. are too quick to spend money and that Biden’s student loan relief effort would overstimulate the economy, though he’s supportive of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, an effort Rosendale opposed. 

“I was just in Havre two weeks ago, and you’re voting against $100 million for the Milk River Irrigation Project,” he told Rosendale at the October debate. “And I didn’t even know about it. But I was told that by dozens of Havre residents. So, you gotta put your money where your mouth is, and you’ve got to help Montanans.”

His messaging sometimes echoes GOP talking points. The biggest issues he hears about, he said, are inflation and funding for law enforcement. The fact that he has had a career in business is an asset, he said, not a sign that he’s out of touch.

“Ronning has called me a millionaire probably 25 times,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of my business success.”

Rosendale, he said, is an embarrassment to the state. Republicans who buy into the voter fraud narrative despite the party’s historic success in Montana are “whining winners.” He said the current direction of the GOP creates a path — what he calls the middle of an eight-lane highway — to Congress, picking up defectors disillusioned with the two-party system. 

“There is a major Republican reaction to how far off the rails the national Republican Party and Montana Republican Party has become,” he said. “There’s such a concern among traditional Republicans that don’t even recognize their party anymore.”

“I’ve split my ticket and voted independently for my entire voting career. I’ve served half a dozen Republican and Democrat governors. I’m a bona fide independent.”

Eastern district independent U.S. House candidate Gary Buchanan

Though their ideologies are not entirely congruent, Buchanan’s campaign has some parallels with Ross Perot’s independent presidential bid in 1992, said Lee Banville, a political analyst and dean of the University of Montana journalism school. Perot did well in Montana, earning 26% of the vote, on a business-oriented campaign of dissatisfaction with the major parties. While the end result was the election of Bill Clinton, one of the only Democratic presidential candidates Montana has supported in the modern era, the run showed a certain appetite for independent or third-party candidates. 

“[Perot] did well in the east” of Montana, Banville said. “There is a willingness to buck the two-party system out there.”

Today’s Montana voters are less likely to split tickets than in the past, and conventional wisdom suggests that an independent run is “difficult at best, and a snowball’s chance at worst,” Banville said. 

But it’s an open question whether Buchanan can carve off economically conservative voters from a party, and an incumbent, that’s increasingly embracing hardline social policies.

“Win or lose, we’re going to surprise people,” Buchanan said.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.