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August 3, 2023

Montana U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy was in Gallatin Gateway Thursday for a town hall moderated by the America First Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank founded by former advisers to former President Donald Trump. While his team ushered Sheehy away after the event and declined to field questions from Capitolized — about, for example, how he plans to ethically run for Senate while continuing to serve as CEO of an aerial firefighting company with substantial government contracts — his comments nonetheless illuminated the rookie candidate’s opinions on a number of political issues, from the recent criminal charges against Trump to foreign policy to the culture wars.

As another panelist, former Trump-era U.S. Secretary of the Interior and current Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, put it to the crowd, Sheehy was, officially, there in his capacity as “Tim Sheehy, a local businessman.” The America First Policy Institute, which counts Sheehy’s fellow panelists and former Trump officials Matthew Whitaker and Chad Wolf as members, cannot directly engage in political campaigning as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. 

Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL, is the pick of the national Republican establishment to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s only statewide-elected Democrat and a sizable impediment to GOP ambitions of controlling the Senate. He isn’t the first Republican to enter the race — that honor goes to Jeremy Mygland, of Clancy — but Sheehy has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as Montana electeds like Gov. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale has also left open the possibility of a run for the seat. 

The few-dozen-strong crowd at Thursday’s event included a few prominent conservative figures in the state, such as anti-marijuana activist Steve Zabawa and State Auditor Troy Downing. 

Montana State Library Commissioner Tammy Hall, a Gianforte appointee, kicked off the town hall with a prayer. In her introduction, she laid out what she sees as the stakes of the current political moment:

“We are in war, do you agree?”

“Yes,” came the overwhelming crowd response. 

“We are, on several fronts,” Hall continued. “These gentlemen … will be telling you about the wars that are coming at us from the outside, along with other things. I’m telling you about the war inside by the people who want to destroy America. And they’re out there, do you agree?”


The panelists spent much of their time discussing what some Republicans have come to deride as a “weaponized” government with a “two-tiered justice system”  intent on putting the former president in jail while obscuring the personal and business dealings of Hunter Biden and his father. 

“Joe Biden knows he can’t beat Trump at the ballot box, so he’s trying to throw him in prison,” Sheehy said on Twitter this week in response to a new federal indictment charging Trump with crimes related to the former president’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

On Thursday, Sheehy joined the other panelists in criticizing a wide swath of government agencies and directives.

“As a leader, as a businessman … I’m accountable to my employees, to my investors, to my customers,” Sheehy said. “If I have firefighting planes that can’t take off and go fight fire because it’s not ready to fly, because I didn’t properly maintain that aircraft, I am held accountable for that by the United States government. They take money away from me for failing to do my job. What accountability exists for our bureaucrats in this nation? You can’t fire them, you can’t sue them, you can’t dock their pay. Nothing happens. And then when there’s no accountability in that leadership structure, then you have the ability to weaponize that structure, to do whatever it wants, because there’s no consequences.” 

That, Sheehy said, explains COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and vaccine mandates.

As a federal contractor, Sheehy’s Bridger Aerospace was required to vaccinate its employees against COVID-19 until the Biden administration ended that mandate in May.

“If that’s not an over-extension of what the writ of our government should be allowed to do, then I’m not sure how much further we could go,” he said. 

When the conversation shifted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — a GOP bogeyman in the post-Russia probe era — Sheehy was careful to say that most FBI officers in the field are “American warriors,” but that the rest of the agency is made up of bureaucrats loyal to the federal bureaucracy. 

“We need a massive restructuring of our entire federal government,” Sheehy said, echoing a comment from Zinke that argued for decentralizing federal agencies away from Washington, D.C.

The remainder of the town hall discussion focused primarily on foreign policy. Sheehy joined the other panelists in rattling sabers at China — a “near adversarial” nation, as Zinke put it — and Mexico, a “failed narco state,” per Whitaker. 

Tester has introduced a bill to prevent Chinese businesses from buying agricultural land and has called China the “most significant threat in the world.”

China, Sheehy claimed, is intentionally facilitating the flow of fentanyl into the United States to destabilize the American public much in the same way that the West brought opium to China in the 19th century. What’s more, he alleged, the Chinese Communist Party is intentionally manipulating and indoctrinating young Americans into communist ideology. 

“The cultural revolution — they did it once already,” Sheehy said. “They saw how to brainwash an entire generation of people, to decentralize the family unit, and say the family unit is no longer the core of our society, turning kids against families, families against each other, turning people against God.”

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Democrat Files in AG Race 

Ben Alke, a Bozeman attorney with the firm Crist, Krogh, Alke & Nord, has registered to run as a Democrat for Montana attorney general in 2024, according to campaign finance paperwork filed with the state. 

Alke is the first candidate to officially enter the race. Montana’s current attorney general, Republican Austin Knudsen, is able to run for re-election, but has not yet publicly announced plans for the 2024 election cycle. 

Alke, who did not return a request for comment this week, has not previously run for office, but has been involved in several major Montana court cases in recent years. 

In 2014, while working with prominent Montana litigator Jim Goetz, Alke was among the group of attorneys representing four Montana couples in an ultimately successful lawsuit to overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage

More recently, Alke represented NorthWestern Energy in a legal fight over the state’s so-called pre-approval statute, a 2003 law that allows the company to petition the Public Service Commission for approval to pursue new energy projects before buying or building them. In May, the Montana Supreme Court overruled a district court decision and found that the plaintiffs who had sought to challenge the law, a climate group and three ratepayers, lacked standing. The Legislature, in the interim, had also passed a law clarifying that pre-approval is available to all public utilities, not just NorthWestern. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Eye on the Trail 

Tim Sheehy, second from right, participates in a town hall in Gallatin Gateway hosted by the America First Policy Institute alongside former Trump administration officials, from left, Chad Wolf, Matthew Whitaker and Ryan Zinke. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press