Montana state Auditor Matt Rosendale won the Republican Senate primary Tuesday night, setting up a matchup against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in one of the year’s top Senate races.
Rosendale defeated former judge Russ Fagg, businessman Troy Downing and state Sen. Al Olszewski for the GOP nomination. Rosendale had 34 percent of the vote when the Associated Press called the race with 55 percent of precincts reporting, with Fagg in second place at 29 percent.
Rosendale was widely viewed as the favorite heading into Tuesday night after given his previous statewide election and outside groups spending more than $3 million on TV ads backing him and attacking Fagg. Rosendale also had backing from top national conservatives, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, as well as the Club for Growth.
He ran as an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, including one ad in which Rosendale said: “I’ll stand with President Trump, we’ll get tough and we’ll build that wall.”
Fagg attempted to paint the state auditor as a carpetbagger — Rosendale moved to Montana in 2002 and still speaks with an accent from his native Maryland. The “Montana outsider” theme is likely to be central to Democrats’ campaign against Rosendale this fall.
Trump won the state by 20 percentage points, putting it squarely in the top tier of targeted Senate races for Republicans in 2018. Yet for months, Montana floated under the radar compared to those other races.
That changed in April, when Tester released details of an investigation into Trump’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, which ultimately helped sink the nomination. Tester drew the president’s ire, with Trump saying the Democrat would have a “big price to pay.”
“I know things about Tester that I could say too, and if I said them, he’d never be elected again,” Trump said at a rally in April.
Tester has made veterans’ issues as a top issue in his campaign, including in all of his TV ads. The Democrat’s first ad showed him listing the number of bills he had authored that Trump signed, several of which dealt with veterans issues. He then released an ad featuring quotes from Montana veterans on their support for his campaign.
“You better believe I’m asking tough questions of everyone back there because veterans deserve nothing less,” Tester said in his most recent spot.
But Tester has also taken a much less cautious approach compared to other red-state Democratic colleagues. He voted against Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year, and he voted against the president’s nominees for CIA director and secretary of state earlier this year.
Tester faces a tough path to re-election. He defeated Rep. Denny Rehberg by 4 percentage points in 2012, 48.7 percent to 44.8 percent, with a Libertarian candidate taking 6.5 percent.
Public polling of the race has been scant, but Tester enters the fall with a substantial fundraising advantage: He had $6.3 million in the bank as of mid-May, while Rosendale had just under $400,000.