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June 29, 2023

First, a programming note: The entire Montana Free Press staff is on vacation next week for the Fourth of July. That means there will be no Capitolized on Thursday, July 6. We’ll return with more political news the following week. Thanks!

It’s Tim Time!

Montana’s closely watched U.S. Senate race is officially underway. 

Former Navy SEAL and Belgrade businessman Tim Sheehy Tuesday declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, making him the first Republican to formally announce a 2024 challenge to Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester. 

Political analysts view Tester, the only statewide-elected Democrat left in Montana after years of GOP gains, as one of the U.S. Senate’s most vulnerable members this upcoming election cycle. Democrats hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, and Republicans are intent on flipping the chamber in their favor. Tester is one of a handful of red-state Democrats who stand in the way.

Sheehy, the millionaire founder and CEO of aerial firefighting company Bridger Aerospace, said in a statement Tuesday he would “fight to bring real leadership to Washington to save our country and protect our Montana way of life.” 

“I think Americans are feeling underrepresented,” he told Fox News Digital. “They’re tired of a government that they don’t feel is working for them.”

He named inflation, border security and the federal budget deficit as top issues. Sheehy’s team did not respond to requests for an interview this week. 

Sheehy, 37, a native of Minnesota who moved to Montana after leaving the military, was recruited by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP campaign organization headed by Sen. Steve Daines — Montana’s other U.S. senator. Speculation about whether and when Sheehy would enter the race has been swirling for months. 

Tester announced his intention to seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate earlier this year. 

Sheehy’s profile should sound familiar to observers of Montana politics. His wealth, business bona fides and primary residence in the Bozeman area — despite out-of-state ties — are reminiscent of Daines and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte. His SEAL background puts him in company with Montana Republican U.S. House Rep. Ryan Zinke. 

“I assume this is why they wanted to recruit him so badly,” said Kal Munis, a Montanan and Utah Valley University political scientist whose research interests include political behavior in Big Sky Country. “In addition to his ability to self-fund, his background is just perfect for being able to sell to the people.” 

It’s also perfect fodder for Dem opposition research, which was already flying in the days following his announcement. The Montana Democratic Party has honed in on both his purchase of expensive properties in Big Sky and on Flathead Lakeat a time when the state is dealing with a housing crisis and his out-of-state roots, drawing a contrast with Tester, a self-described “dirt farmer” from Big Sandy with several generations of family in the state. (Tester, per federal election records, is also a millionaire, though that’s not exactly unusual in the wealthy gerontocracy of the U.S. Senate). 

“Jon Tester has farm equipment that’s been in Montana longer than Tim Sheehy,” Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Montana Democratic Party, said. “The last thing Montanans want in a senator is an out-of-state transplant recruited by Mitch McConnell and D.C. lobbyists. The tough questions Tim Sheehy is facing are just beginning.”

It’s a familiar line. The state Democratic party has deployed similar criticisms of Gianforte (who is from the Philadelphia suburbs), Zinke (who is from Whitefish but has a residence in California), Montana congressman Matt Rosendale (who is from Maryland) and others, to varying degrees of success. When Rosendale — who still has a noticeable Maryland accent — challenged Tester in 2018, Democrats branded him “Maryland Matt.” 

Tester defeated Rosendale by three points that year, though that probably had more to do with Tester’s massive fundraising advantage, incumbency and candidacy in a midterm election with a Republican in the White House than with an alliterative nickname for the former state auditor. Zinke and Gianforte, meanwhile, have both won federal or statewide office despite critiques of their Montana ties and, in the case of Zinke, a pile of ethics probes stemming from his time as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

“They trot it out for every cycle, whether they’re born and raised Montanans like Ryan Zinke who happen to have a house elsewhere to folks like Steve Daines who kind of has a complicated origin story to people like Sheehy and Rosendale who really have no connection to the state,” Munis said. “They’ve kind of overplayed it. But then the other important bit — there are so many Montanans now that aren’t from Montana. And these messages don’t resonate with them.” 

It’s hard to pin down the political affiliations of Montana’s many recent arrivals, but it’s safe to say that high-growth counties like Flathead and Ravalli are deeply conservative. On the flip side, Gallatin and Missoula counties are also adding residents at a healthy clip, and lean consistently Democratic. 

Sheehy likely won’t have a clear path to the GOP nomination. 

On Monday, Politico reported what’s already been widely rumored to be true — that Rosendale, a conservative hardliner affiliated with the House Freedom Caucus, is also planning a bid for Senate.

Rosendale took an early crack at Sheehy Tuesday, writing on Twitter that the new candidate was chosen by McConnell and the “party bosses.”

“Now Washington has two candidates — Tim Sheehy and Jon Tester — who will protect the DC cartel,” Rosendale wrote. “Unfortunately for them, Montanans don’t take orders from Washington. I believe that Montanans are tired of business as usual and will reject the McConnell-Biden Establishment.” 

A spokesperson for Rosendale said in a statement that the two-term congressman has yet to decide whether to challenge Tester, but noted that Rosendale “has the trust and overwhelming support of Montana voters and there is no question that the people of Montana deserve better than a Democrat yes-man like Sen. Tester or a candidate hand-picked by McConnell and the Washington, D.C. elites.”

The spokesperson pointed to a poll from Public Policy Polling, generally seen as a liberal pollster, showing that 67% of the 510 likely GOP primary voters surveyed favor Rosendale, compared to just 10% for Sheehy. Montana, it should be noted, is notoriously difficult to poll given its large geography and sparse population. 

A Rosendale entry would complicate the race’s picture considerably. His recognition on the GOP’s right flank and high-profile rebellion against House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would make him a formidable opponent in a primary, Munis said, but might not do much for him in a general election. 

Other Republican officials are already taking sides. Politico reported Wednesday that some Republican lawmakers and donors are urging Rosendale not to challenge Sheehy, while others, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are encouraging him to take his chances. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, meanwhile, endorsed Sheehy

Daines told Politico that he really likes Rosendale, “which is why I am encouraging him to build seniority for the great state of Montana in the House and help Republicans hold their majority.”

The “X” factor, as ever, is Donald Trump. Tester has never had to run with Trump at the top of the ballot, and Trump tends to bring out Republican-leaning infrequent voters who might otherwise stay home, Munis said. In addition, Tester’s victory over Rosendale in 2018 came amid a strong reaction against Trump’s presence in the White House. Now, the script is flipped, and Tester will have to weather President Joe Biden’s anemic favorability numbers. 

“Some of those birds are gonna come home to roost here that didn’t in 2018,” Munis said.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

A Tax Cap in Court

A proposed constitutional amendment that would put a firm cap on Montana property tax collections has become enmeshed in litigation blocking the signature-gathering necessary to place it on the 2024 ballot. Ballot Issue 2, proposed by a group led by Bozeman attorney Matt Monforton, would cap increases to the property value assessments used for calculating property taxes at 2% a year and limit annual taxes collected on “real property” to 1% of the property’s assessed value.

The office of Attorney General Austin Knudsen has ruled the measure “legally insufficient.” In a June 5 memo, Knudsen’s legal staff argued the proposal is too ambiguous to place on the ballot and violates the state Constitution’s prohibition on initiatives that seek to change too many things at once. Monforton responded by filing suit June 15, asking the Montana Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.

Issue 2 is similar to last year’s Constitutional Initiative 121, which sought to cap taxes for residential properties. That initiative, which failed to clear the signature-gathering threshold necessary to make the 2022 ballot, was also advanced by Monforton. It was opposed by a coalition that included the Montana Association of Realtors and the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the state’s largest public employees union.

An analysis by the governor’s budget office says Issue 2 would reduce property tax collections — the primary revenue source funding schools, law enforcement and fire departments across Montana — by 88%. Monforton disputed that analysis in an interview with Capitolized this week, saying it doesn’t account for how the Legislature would implement the initiative if it’s ultimately approved by voters.

—Eric Dietrich

Small Grabs MT AFL-CIO Gig

As we foreshadowed in last week’s Capitolized, Republican state Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, was elected executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO at its convention last weekend. Small — a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe — is the first Republican and the first Indigenous person to lead the labor federation in Montana. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

Meet The Millionaire ‘Cowboy’ And Ex-Navy SEAL Being Primed To Take On Sen. Jon Tester: HuffPo was among the first to unpack candidate Tim Sheehy’s personal history, his business, his ranching assets and his properties. 

CI-121: The initiative that could upend Montana’s tax systemThe property tax initiative at the center of a legal battle with the Montana Department of Justice is similar to 2022’s CI-121, which Montana Free Press described in this report last year. 

Senate Republicans try to stop messy Montana primary: A potential Sheehy-Rosendale matchup has some Republicans nervous, per this Politico story.