The Montana Legislature on Monday heard a series of addresses from the state’s federal delegation — at least three of whom could well be vying for the same U.S. Senate seat come 2024.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, Sen. Steve Daines, Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale focused to varying degrees on current Montana issues, like high costs of living or what to do with the state’s roughly $2.5 billion budget surplus, but all diagnosed Congress with a dysfunction they contrasted with the Montana Legislature.
Tester began his speech lauding Montana’s so-called citizen Legislature — a body of ostensible non-careerists that meets only for 90 days every two years.
He’s so committed to that system, Tester said, that he has continued farming his property in Big Sandy even after his election to the U.S. Senate.
But “it’s not enough to have the best system if it isn’t put to good use,” Tester said in a wide-ranging speech that featured liberal defenses of a woman’s right to abortion, a dig at the wealthy, a heady dose of anti-China saber rattling and criticism of President Joe Biden.
Zinke criticized federal spending and regulations and touted his service as a Navy SEAL — frequent topics for the former U.S. secretary of the interior — but also called for togetherness and bipartisan unity.
“Sometimes you have got to find commonality,” he said. “What is common among us? It should be the Constitution of the United States.”
Rosendale focused prominently on the work of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Freedom Caucus, the group of hardline Republicans that spent the early days of January extracting amendments to House rules out of would-be party leadership during a protracted contest for the speakership. He called for balancing the federal budget and forecasted a fight about the debt ceiling.
“Congress is not working the way that the Montana Legislature has been working, I can guarantee you that,” Rosendale, who seemed to generate the most applause from GOP state lawmakers, told the joint session of the Legislature. “In order for us to start making some changes, you have to change the way that the place functions.”
Those three — Tester, Zinke and Rosendale — offer interesting contrasts ahead of what could be a barnburner of a U.S. Senate race in 2024. Tester, should he choose to run, will be up for re-election, and political observers have pointed to both Zinke and Rosendale as potential challengers, with Rosendale occupying the right flank of the party and Zinke, despite his cabinet position under President Donald Trump, taking a more moderate tack.
Tester earlier this month said he wasn’t prepared to commit to a re-election bid, per NBC News. Rosendale, who narrowly lost a Senate race to Tester in 2018, hasn’t committed either, though national conservative PAC Club for Growth Action has signaled it would back him if he ran. Zinke told the Associated Press last year that he sees Tester as vulnerable, but he also hasn’t committed to a challenge.
Daines, for his part, won’t be up for re-election until 2026. In his speech Monday, Daines touched on some similar themes as his colleagues but also devoted a substantial chunk of his time to his recent Twitter suspension for posting a hunting photo online, even bringing a large poster of the photo to display behind him as he spoke.
“What the San Francisco elite deemed ‘violent and adult content,’ I consider this part of our Montana way of life,” he said.
His speech in particular generated criticism from Democrats.
“The #MTLeg is charged with addressing serious challenges,” tweeted House Minority Leader Kim Abbott. “It’s frustrating our junior US Senator spent his time today fanning the flames of tired culture war nonsense & complaining about twitter, instead of addressing how his constituents are stuck living in campers on [Bozeman’s] 19th Ave.”
U.S. SEN. JON TESTER, D
“To put it plainly,” Tester told the joint session, “rich folks don’t need any help.”
It was one of the most outwardly progressive statements the red-state Democrat made Monday, a reference to how the state should begin to address its affordability crisis.
“The folks that need the help are those who cannot afford to work in Montana because housing costs are too high,” he continued. “That is an economic failure that this body needs to address.”
He applauded Montana’s low unemployment rate but emphasized that the state has its issues. The state has a more than $2 billion surplus, he said — and “now it is time to seize the opportunity and use that surplus and tackle high costs that impact hardworking Montanans,” he said. “That includes inflation, housing, health care costs, childcare costs.”
He called for collaboration between the public and private sectors to develop workforce housing.
Generally, he struck a typically Testerian balance between fundamental Democratic platform planks and overtures to conservatives. He connected, for example, the presence of a suspected Chinese spy balloon in Montana skies with the state’s attempt at restricting abortion.
“We witnessed an unacceptable incursion into our airspace from China — which, by the way, if you think it was a weather balloon, I’ve got some great beachfront property in Big Sandy to sell you.”
The balloon, he said, saw things it wasn’t supposed to see. Montanans value their privacy and their freedom, he said – they don’t want to be spied on.
“Privacy and freedom are bedrock principles in this state, and elected officials would do well to respect that,” he said. “Whether it’s about regulating the kind of medical care that families receive or protecting our Second Amendment rights.”
And he criticized President Joe Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline permit and implied the president is too soft on the southern border.
“Montana common sense tells us no partisan victory will ever be worth the damage it will cause by unraveling our state and democracy,” he said. “I’ll keep doing my level best to bring a healthy dose of common sense to the halls of Congress.”
U.S. SEN. STEVE DAINES, R
Daines began his speech by applauding his former boss at Bozeman’s RightNow Technologies — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte.
“In the last two years, Gov. Gianforte’s bold leadership of the great Montana comeback is creating a better environment to raise our children and a better environment to grow business,” he said.
But he quickly turned his attention to the national stage. Democrats in D.C. are taxing and spending too much, he argued, driving the country to inflation.
“Radical environmental groups” and federal appeals courts are holding up fossil fuel projects and preventing forest management, he said.
“Joe Biden and the Senate Democrats are living in a green hallucination,” he continued.
People aren’t just moving to Montana because of the show “Yellowstone,” he said — they’re “fleeing the heavy hand of blue state governors, and heading for freedom.”
The crowning moment of his speech was the production of a large poster featuring an image of Daines, his wife Cindy and an antelope the pair hunted. The poster was so large it obscured House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, who sat behind Daines, from view of the rest of the House chamber.
Daines was suspended from Twitter early this month after he changed his profile picture to the image of the antelope. Twitter said the picture violated its rules against graphic violence and adult content.
Billionaire Twitter CEO and owner Elon Musk reached out to Daines “13 hours after I got placed in Twitter jail,” the senator said. Musk pledged to change Twitter’s moderation policies.
Daines used the suspension as an opportunity to swing at “coastal elites” out of touch with Montana values.
While that statement initially applied to Montana’s hunting pastime, Daines also criticized “gender ideology.” The state Legislature has several bills this session restricting transgender health care and expression under the auspice of protecting children from sexualization.
“Let boys be boys, and let girls be girls,” Daines said.
U.S. REP. RYAN ZINKE, R
Zinke spent much of his most recent congressional bid in Montana’s newly formed western U.S. House district railing against the “deep state.” It was the deep state, he argued, that dogged his tenure as interior secretary, a two-year period pockmarked by several ethics scandals.
But on Monday, he took the conciliatory tone that established him as a relatively moderate state lawmaker early in his political career.
“When I was a SEAL, it didn’t matter to me whether a person was a Democrat or a Republican,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter to me today. But it does matter whether you love the country. It does matter whether you want to make things better for your neighbor. It does matter whether you want to protect what’s important — Montana’s lifestyle. That matters. It should matter to us all.”
He took his swings at the Biden administration for its Waters of the United States rulemaking and at Congress for the amount of mandatory spending in the federal budget — the budget lines that include Medicare and Social Security, among other ongoing statutory programs. And he echoed lines from his Interior Department days about boosting domestic energy production as a national security measure.
Ultimately, though, he called for doing “great things,” and doing them together.
“On the national level, on foreign shores we have problems,” he said. “Afghanistan, Ukraine, Taiwan. “We have problems domestically: energy, inflation, homelessness, the border.”
And, he said, we have problems culturally — though the only problem he identified was a lack of “respect,” not, for example, gender ideology.
He also talked about uniting eastern and western Montana, a potential forecast of a statewide run.
“In Montana now we have two districts,” he said. “I don’t mind east and west when it comes to the Shriner’s game, because I played for the west and we won. But issues in Montana are more than just east and west. Issues in Montana are both east and west.”
U.S. REP. MATT ROSENDALE, R
Rosendale’s speech focused largely on his vision of accountability for Congress and the federal government, pointing to the Freedom Caucus’ role in negotiations over the speakership as a prime example of people working to change the status quo.
“Everybody’s been talking about different issues, policies, things that have been going on,” he said. “I think the thing I’d like to talk about is that Washington is broken, and the things I tried to do to fix that system.”
He identified a caucus of lawmakers who campaigned on fixing Congress and tried to deliver on that promise once in office.
“So what we did was develop a set of amendments to restore Congress,” he said. “Not to radically change Congress, or to have it deviate from something that happened previously, but to restore Congress.”
Previously, Congress operated under a system where the speaker of the House held all the cards, he said. Under the rules that the Freedom Caucus successfully advanced, regular order was restored, he said.
Much like the Montana Legislature, federal legislation must now fit under a single subject, he said. As in Montana, he said, legislation will now be scheduled within 72 hours before a vote. (It’s worth noting that the Montana Legislature has disregarded these rules when convenient in the past).
“And everybody says, ‘Oh my gosh, is Congress going to be able to function?’ Well I will tell you — you want to talk about unity — here’s the unity that took place the following week. We voted to defund 87,000 IRS agents. We voted to pass the Born Alive Act to protect infants in the mother’s womb, how about that. As you heard previously, we voted to denounce socialism.”
In the coming months, he said, conservatives will push a conversation about balancing the federal budget, drawing back COVID-19 relief funds, looking for agency “honey buckets” and drawing that money back to the treasury.
As he discussed the budget, he called out to the press.
“As we go through this process, we will not touch the benefits for our seniors,” he said. “Nothing will touch social security benefits or Medicare benefits. Write it down.”
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