Look for hard-fought, well-funded U.S. Senate race

HELENA — The results of June 5 primary elections gave some clues as to the mood of Montana’s electorate, and all signs points to another competitive — and expensive — U.S. Senate race this fall.

State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who ran much of his primary campaign as though he was the frontrunner, confirmed that position last week by easily defeating former Billings Judge Russ Fagg, Big Sky businessman Troy Downing and Kalispell surgeon Al Olszewski in the four-way Republican U.S. Senate primary.

Rosendale, who has already benefited from nearly $2 million in outside spending, will now face two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester on Nov. 6.

Rosendale said now that he’s the Republican Party’s official choice to take on Tester, the only thing that changes about his campaign in the level of support it has.

“Six months ago, my campaign was against Jon Tester because I recognized we had the campaign and the candidate that was the most viable one to take Jon Tester on,” Rosendale said. “Now the people of Montana have made that decision.

Tester, a former state senator and farmer from Big Sandy, narrowly won his first two elections to the U.S. Senate in 2006 and 2012 in what were some of the most expensive campaigns in Montana history. Political observers expect Tester to face another stiff challenge in Rosendale in a state where President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in 2016. Trump currently enjoys at 56 percent approval rating in Montana.

Libertarian Rick Breckenridge, of Dayton, and Green Party candidate Steve Kelly, of Bozeman, are also running.

Tester said Montana’s Senate race will not be a referendum on Trump, but rather a clear choice about who Montanans want to represent them.

“Do they want a millionaire real estate developer from Maryland to represent them, or they can have a third-generation Montana farmer,” Tester said in an interview Friday. “I think it’s going to about be who Montanans want to represent them and carry their values to Washington, D.C. If I was Matt Rosendale, I’d want to make it about somebody else, too.”

Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College, said turnout for the June 5 primary election should be an encouraging sign for Tester and Democrats. Johnson points to the fact that voter turnout in a mid-term election year primary is typically around 35 percent, but this year’s turnout was north of 41 percent, the highest midterm primary turnout rate in nearly a quarter century.

Matt Rosendale

Matt Rosendale

In addition, the percentage of primary voters who voted on the Democratic primary ballot in the top races increased by 7 percent from the 2014 mid-term primary.

“I think there’s clear Democratic Party enthusiasm,” Johnson said. “Primary election turnout is not that predictive of turnout for a general election, but if the election of Trump has generated increased Democratic enthusiasm, I’d expect that will be the same in the general election.”

Montana’s Senate race will once again be closely watched throughout the country, and outside groups are expected to spend millions of dollars in the state in the coming months.

Indeed, they already have.

Six third-party groups have already spent $1.8 million to support Rosendale, and another $383,000 opposing Tester.

For his part, Tester has benefitted from $430,000 in outside spending to support his re-election bid, and more is on the way.

On Monday, a group called the Senate Majority PAC announced that it reserved TV airtime in nine states that have competitive Senate races, including Montana. The group’s funders include hedge fund manager and philanthropist Donald Sussman, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, and billionaire investor and political activist George Soros.

Senate Majority PAC spokesman Chris Hayden said the group plans to spend “seven figures” in Montana, though he declined to give a specific amount.

“It is obviously a key race this year and Republican outside groups have been spending for a while there focused on Matt Rosendale,” Hayden said Monday. “The reason the outside groups have been spending against [Tester] is because he represents Montanans and not them.”

Jon Tester

Jon Tester

Tester, who as of May enjoyed a 52 percent approval rating among likely Montana voters, found himself in Trump’s crosshairs in April after Tester — the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs — made public allegations against Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick to head the Veterans Administration.

Jackson removed himself for consideration for the post after the allegations — which included claims that the official White House doctor engaged in inappropriate behavior that included handing out prescription drugs — surfaced.

Trump then took to Twitter and called on Tester to resign from the Senate. Political observers expect Trump to campaign in Montana against Tester.

And if Trump wasn’t enough of a wild-card in this year’s Senate race, there’s another twist: The Green Party will be on the ballot.

If Kelly is allowed to stay on the ballot as the Green Party candidate (the Montana Democratic Party filed a lawsuit asking a judge to decertify the Green Party because of irregularities involving petition signatures) some Democrats fear Kelly could draw votes from liberals who might otherwise vote for Tester.Green Party candidate Steve Kelly unsuccessfully ran for U.S. House in 1994 as an independent, and he was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House in 2002, where he lost to Republican Denny Rehberg by 32 points.

Conventional wisdom among Montana Republicans is that Libertarian candidates have — with the help of groups tied to Democrats — played spoiler roles in Tester’s previous two elections by drawing enough votes from the Republicans in those races to put Tester over the top.

In 2012, a third-party group sympathetic to Tester spent $500,000 in the final days of the election on a TV ad buy supporting the Libertarian in the race, Dan Cox.

This time around Democrats have accused a Nevada-based company of conducting paid signature-gathering operations in Montana on behalf of the Green Party without reporting those activities to state regulators, as required by law.

Could groups sympathetic to Republicans be taking a page out of their political opponents’ playbook and back the Green Party candidate?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, Kelly rejects the notion that he or the Green Party could play a “spoiler” role come November. Elections are about choices, Kelly said, and he is giving voters another choice.

“We’re the moral alternative to the two-party corruption that’s getting worse all the time,” Kelly said in an interview Saturday.

Kelly said the attempt by Democrats to remove Green Party candidates from the ballot is “blatant voter suppression.”

“Tester has never won with the majority of the vote in Montana. He’s had two tough elections in 2006 and 2012, yet most people think Tester is a favorite, and that seems to include some Republicans,” Kondik said.Trump, outside spending, the power of the incumbency, and third-party candidates are among the reasons Sabato’s Crystal Ball managing editor Kyle Kondik called Montana’s U.S. Senate race one of the most “mysterious” races in the country.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball currently lists Montana’s Senate race as “leans Democrat.”

That’s partly because history shows voters traditionally are not kind to Senate candidates who share the same political party affiliation as the sitting president.

Kondik points to the fact that between 1914 and 2014, Senate incumbents who did not belong to the president’s party were reelected 91 percent of the time.

John Adams is the founding editor of The Montana Free Press, where this piece was first published.

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