The Four Republicans facing off in Montana’s June primary election met in a Missoula forum last night. Each pitched himself as the best candidate to unseat two-term Democratic Senator Jon Tester.
Around 80 people turned out for the event sponsored by the Missoula County Republican Party and the University of Montana College Republicans.
(Audio of the entire forum is available here.)
In efforts to separate themselves from the pack, candidates touted endorsements from other well known conservatives, and some told stories of their Montana roots and heritage or their experience in the private business sector.
Often throughout the event, candidates were given opportunities to align themselves with President Donald Trump, which most were happy to do. Trump carried Montana voters by 20 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“President Trump has an outstanding agenda,” Matt Rosendale said.
Rosendale is the Current Republican State Auditor from Glendive. A question from the crowd asked candidates if they thought if Trump would be an asset or liability in the upcoming election.
“It’s based on three pillars, expand our economy, defend our nation, and preserve our culture. And if he has support in implementing that agenda then he will be a tremendous asset here in Montana,” Rosendale said.
Rosendale was not alone in hitching his campaign platform onto the new wave of conservative populism that put Trump in the White House.
Troy Downing, a businessman from Big Sky, worked to paint a portrait of himself as similar to Trump.
“I’m tired of sending establishment politicians to D.C. And I like having somebody who’s a businessman, that loves this nation, and will stand up to our enemies and will protect our allies,” Downing said.
All the Republican candidates, including Albert Olszewski, a state senator from Kalispell, said they didn’t support Donald Trump signing the omnibus federal spending bill last Friday.
But Olszewski says Republicans’ strategy this mid-term should be to hammer Jon Tester for votes he made against Trump’s agenda.
“What we’re going to do is we’re going to run on the things that Jon Tester didn’t vote for,” he said.
And Olszewski says he’s the best person to do that.
For his part, Tester is campaigning on his ability to get more than a dozen bills passed that President Trump has signed.
Russ Fagg, a judge from Billings, was the least eager to embrace the president during the Missoula candidate forum. Although he supports a lot of what Trump stands for, Fagg says not everything Trump does is best for Montana.
“If we get into a trade war that is going to hurt our bread and butter, which is agriculture in Montana. So I’m going to go back and support those things that I believe will help Montana, and I believe that is most of his agenda, but I’m not going to support everything if it doesn’t support Montana,” he said.
Fagg's message last night was that he was the Montanan in the race, and although he says that isn’t something he had much control of, it could help him beat Tester.
“It takes away the agreement that a couple of my opponents have, that they’ve been here a short term, and it’s going to be hammered on by the Democrats,” Fagg said.
Democrats have repeatedly targeted Republicans in recent elections for being out-of-staters.
Troy Downing caught news headlines this week for asking a Montana judge to throw out misdemeanor charges brought by Montana wildlife officials. They say he bought Montana resident hunting licenses over a six year period while also claiming residency in California on tax documents.
Albert Olszewski, the other Montana born candidate, says he offers experience that’s unique among his primary opponents.
“I’m a physician, I can talk about the issues of health care, as a veteran I can continue to talk about health care and why our vets are not completely taken care of, I'm a small businessman with 85 employees, so I can talk to you about regulation. And I’m a battle tested state legislator,” Olszewski said.
Troy Downing said it’s his lack of political experience that makes him the best fit to take on Tester. Downing, more so than the other candidates repeatedly offered himself as a comparison to Trump.
“What I like about President Trump, and what I think a lot of other people liked about him, is that he had success in the private sector. He was a businessman, who new how to solve problems outside of politics. So which of us can send Jon Tester home. Somebody who has built businesses in multiple industries, someone who has built the American dream and who is a combat veteran,” Downing said.
Matt Rosendale’s theme of the night was his track record representing Montanans as former majority leader of the state senate and current state auditor.
“Again, you know who I am, I’ve served you. I’ve kept my promises. I’ve cut spending, I’ve reduced regulation. If you send me to Washington D.C. I’ll take the fight for you,” Rosendale said.
Each of the candidates proclaimed their commitment to defending Montanans’ access to guns, promoting new logging efforts they say will prevent forest fires, and improving health care for veterans.
Near the end of the event last night, each Republican candidate promised to support and fundraise for whoever wins the June 5th primary. They all said their top priority is for Republicans to control both of Montana’s seats in the U.S. Senate, which hasn’t happened in over 100 years.