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August 17, 2023

Of the many unanswered questions about Montana’s high-profile but still fledgling 2024 U.S. Senate race, here’s one that’s especially relevant at this stage of the campaign: In the event of a contested Republican primary next June, who will former (and, if he gets his way, future) President Donald Trump endorse? 

On Monday, state Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, sought a definitive answer to that question, asking Trump explicitly to endorse current Congressman Matt Rosendale — a Republican hardliner whose entry into the Senate race, while not yet official, seems all but guaranteed — over Bozeman businessman Tim Sheehy, the current party standard bearer in the GOP’s bid to topple Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester next year. 

Trump, who said he’s only just beginning to look at the race, was noncommittal, promising only that he’d take Galloway’s request under consideration. 

“Do you know why he hasn’t declared? He’s probably waiting for my endorsement,” the former president speculated. 

The exchange took place during a video call set up by the national House Freedom Caucus between Trump and members of state freedom caucuses across the country, according to state Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, who chairs the Montana Freedom Caucus and posted an excerpt of the call to her Instagram page

The local caucuses are members of the State Freedom Caucus Network, a national group affiliated with the House Freedom Caucus. Rosendale is a prominent member of the federal caucus, and gained some national notoriety during contentious negotiations over the speakership of California Republican Kevin McCarthy earlier this year.

During the call, Galloway called Rosendale a “stalwart” of the House Freedom Caucus and a conservative with a “100% constitutional voting record.” Galloway then took some shots at Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL who has the backing of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Montana Sen. Steve Daines and other key Republicans, deriding him as a millionaire with no political experience and lacking Rosendale’s grassroots support.

“The RINO establishment is supporting Sheehy,” Galloway continued. For the benefit of readers who don’t spend their workdays parsing the rhetoric of right-wing GOP activists, “RINO” is short for “Republican in Name Only.”

Trump didn’t directly address that critique or say whether he’s spoken with Sheehy. He asked Galloway whether he feels Rosendale would do better against Tester in 2024 than he did in 2018, when the then-state auditor handed Tester the only majority victory of his electoral career. Trump rallied for Rosendale in Montana multiple times that year, and said Monday he was disappointed Rosendale lost despite his help. 

Galloway said he is sure Rosendale will win, and attributed the loss in 2018 to an expensive primary (against Russ Fagg, Troy Downing and Al Olszewski) that sapped Rosendale’s resources ahead of a general contest with Tester, an adept incumbent fundraiser. Galloway did not indicate how that dynamic might be different in a 2024 primary against multi-millionaire Sheehy.

Rosendale, who was elected to Congress in 2020, has been playing hard to get, showing signs of a bid for Senate but not making anything official. National media has repeatedly reported that he’s planning a run. On social media and through his spokespeople, he’s been intensely critical of Sheehy and emphasized his own favorability compared to the rookie candidate. But as of now, his office told NBC News this morning, he’s yet to make a decision. 

Sheehy formally declared his candidacy in June. Clancy businessman Jeremy Mygland will also be on the Republican ballot.

Rosendale received Trump’s endorsement in his 2018 Senate run and in subsequent campaigns for Congress. But their relationship is complicated. CNN reported earlier this year that Trump explicitly said he would not endorse Rosendale, though Rosendale’s office denied that version of events. Trump is also at odds with the super PAC Club for Growth, a major financial backer of Rosendale in past campaigns. 

Tester, Montana’s only statewide-elected Democrat, is considered by political observers to be a vulnerable incumbent. Democrats hold a two-seat majority in the U.S. Senate. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Before and After

Left: 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. Right: Rosendale refuses a phone call from former President Donald Trump during an intense vote for the House speakership on January 7, 2023. Rosendale has since explained he didn’t take the call because he felt it’s inappropriate to speak on the phone while on the House floor and that it’s “completely out of line for someone to call the president without my consent, and to try to insert me into a conversation while I was involved in a historic, rapidly changing vote.” Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bogner floats Ken-didacy for Congress

Matt Rosendale’s will-he-or-won’t-he relationship with Jon Tester’s Senate seat leaves several Republicans who’d like to take a crack at Congress in limbo.

By our count, at least four Republicans have expressed interest in the eastern Montana U.S. House district currently represented by Rosendale. Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci said back in March that he’d run for the seat if Rosendale vacates it. And earlier this week, term-limited Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen — who made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2014 — announced the formation of an exploratory committee and began soliciting donations. Her announcement was followed shortly by one from current state auditor and insurance commissioner Troy Downing, who said he would “prayerfully consider” running for Congress if Rosendale declares for Senate. Add to that list state Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, who confirmed his interest in the seat to Capitolized Thursday.

“Congressman Rosendale has been a great conservative leader in the House, and if he does leave, we need to replace him with someone with those same conservative values,” Bogner said. “Having been born and raised in rural Montana, I have those same conservative values.” 

Bogner said he talked to Rosendale during the recent legislative session, but wasn’t able to get a clear picture of the incumbent’s plans. Like seemingly everyone else in state politics, he’s watching and waiting to see what the congressman will do. 

Nobody in the GOP has said they’ll run for the seat regardless of Rosendale’s plans. On the Democratic side, only Helena’s Kevin Hamm has so far launched a campaign for the eastern district seat. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Former Pols Push for Top-Four Open Primaries 

A coalition of former Republican officials and a Libertarian legislative candidate are pushing a pair of constitutional amendment ballot initiatives they contend will “reform our broken political system.” 

The most substantive proposal would create a system of top-four open primaries for most elections in the state, regardless of party. That would replace Montana’s current system — in which a voter can participate in the partisan primary of their choice — with a true open primary akin to those the state holds for judicial elections. Under the proposal, the four candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election, whether Democrat, Republican or otherwise. 

“This reform is more inclusive for the plurality of Montana voters who are independent or don’t align with either major party. Most voters would like the freedom to vote for the best person for each office, rather than being constrained to only vote for candidates on one party ballot,” the initiative sponsors said in a statement. 

The second proposal would amend the Montana Constitution to require that winners of general elections receive a majority of the vote. If no candidate receives a majority, the winner would be chosen in a manner to be determined by the Legislature. 

The sponsors of the initiatives include several fixtures of the comparatively moderate wing of the GOP, including former lawmakers Rob Cook, Frank Garner, Bruce Tutvedt and Bruce Grubbs. The other sponsors are Pondera County Republican activist and former state GOP central committee member Ted Kronebusch and former Libertarian legislative candidate Doug Campbell. 

“The submitters are united by a feeling that politics has gotten too acrimonious and has caused voters to get left behind,” they said in a statement. “With a decline in competitive seats, politicians of both parties are more focused on winning their next partisan primary than they are trying to pass good policies or show leadership in their communities.”

The sponsors submitted the initiatives to Montana’s secretary of state on Wednesday. The proposals will need to pass a legal review by Attorney General Austin Knudsen, among other hurdles, before the sponsors can begin gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot in 2024.  

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Background Reading

If Rosendale is out, Arntzen says she’s in for U.S. House race in 2024:Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Artnzen has gone public with her intention to run for Congress if incumbent Matt Rosendale vacates his seat. “We have been fortunate to have rock-solid conservative representation in Rep. Rosendale; Arntzen is committed to building upon that legacy should Rosendale toss his hat in the ring for U.S. Senate,” a strategist for Arntzen told the Billings Gazette. 

How the Montana GOP supermajority wielded its power: Among the former Republican lawmakers backing initiatives to overhaul Montana elections is Frank Garner, once a prominent member of the so-called Solutions Caucus. We chatted with Garner at the end of the recent legislative session for his take on the direction of the Montana GOP. 

Marc Racicot and Bob Brown: Free and open primary elections: The proposal for top-four primaries in Montana echoes calls made by former Republican officials Bob Brown and Marc Racicot in this 2022 op-ed.