MISSOULA — The tone shifted in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate at a forum Wednesday night in Missoula, with former Billings judge Russ Fagg making some of the strongest attacks to date on fellow candidate and state Auditor Matt Rosendale.
Fagg ran through a list of things he believes makes Rosendale vulnerable to attacks from Democrats, while Rosendale continued to focus on why he’s best suited to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is seeking his third term this fall.
Troy Downing, a Big Sky businessman, sold himself as a political outsider like Republican President Donald Trump and a combat veteran with the experience to fix issues with the Veterans Affairs agency.
State legislator and Kalispell doctor Al Olszewski told the crowd of about 40 that he’s not beholden to any corporate interests and has a strong record of serving Montana in the state Legislature.
Nationally, Democrats are hoping to ride a wave of support, marked by victories in special elections and state legislative-level victories, to gain control of Congress this fall. Republicans are expected to double down against Tester, who has never won a race with 50 percent of the vote, by sending money and advertising to Montana in droves.
Earlier this week, candidates released their finance reports for the first quarter of 2018. Downing leads the money race, hitting the $1.3 million mark for his campaign to date, though $1 million of that is his own money. Rosendale is a close second, bringing in $1.08 million to date. Fagg trails at $931,951 and Olszewski is at $233,491.
Absentee ballots in the race will start reaching voters in less than a month. The pressure of that that deadline was clear in Fagg’s opening remarks, which he used to hit Rosendale hard.
Fagg said Rosendale is vulnerable against Tester and that Rosendale’s out-of-state support shows he’s not a genuine Montanan. He also knocked Rosendale's past runs for office, including for the state Legislature and U.S. House, as showing he moved here to start a political career.
Rosendale, who came to Montana nearly two decades ago from Maryland, has been identified by some national groups as the front-runner of the race. He has the support of Richard Uihlein of Illinois and his conservative super political action committees, the Restoration PAC and the Americas PAC, which have kicked in more than $1.2 million to back him.
In his opening comments, Rosendale countered that his past campaigns show he has the support from Montanans to beat Tester.
“You’re the ones that elected me and you asked me to go to Helena and reduce spending, and I did,” Rosendale said. “You asked me to go to Helena and reduce regulations, and I did.”
Later he referenced his race for state auditor in 2016, saying he won by getting 26,000 more votes than Tester has ever gotten in his two previous U.S. Senate race victories. Rosendale received 262,045 votes in the 2016 auditor's race; Tester got 236,123 votes in his 2012 Senate run.
Rosendale worked to establish his Montana credentials, talking about hauling sugar beets and driving T-posts to rebuild fences after wildfires near his Glendive ranch.
But Rosenale also said his out-of-state support is exactly what’s required to defeat Tester, who has raised about $11.39 million and has $6.4 million cash on hand. Montana support alone isn’t enough to match that, he said.
“It’s going to take a lot more than that to defeat Jon Tester, because he’s got 12 years of special interests in his back pocket and that is a lot of money,” Rosendale said. “He’s well-armed and ready to take on this battle. So whoever we put up has to have the ability to gather a lot of support across this state and across this nation.”
In another line of attack, Fagg criticized Rosendale over his recent Invest in Montana tour conducted as state Commissioner of Securities and Exchange over the last month.
“It’s a 19-city tour paid for with a state slush fund,” Fagg said. “He’s taking workers, people from his office, on the Montana slush fund,” Fagg said. “He should have done it last year, but in the middle of the campaign it just doesn’t pass the smell test. At the end of the day, these are the things Democrats are going to bring up that makes Matt unelectable in November.”
Rosendale didn’t address that directly, but said while in the auditor’s office he’s reduced the agency’s budget and cut regulations.
Downing avoided going after any of the other candidates, instead reiterating his background as a business owner and combat veteran, saying that experience makes him the best choice for voters.
“We can’t keep sending career politicians to defeat him,” Downing said. “It’s not going to work.”
Downing, a military pilot, also referenced a recent campaign ad he's run on television criticizing Tester. The ad shows a fighter jet knocking a fake trumpet-playing Tester, a former music teacher, off a tractor.
“Nothing wrong with a retired music teacher. We need our teachers, that’s great, but that is not a skill set that gets problems solved in D.C.,” Downing said.
Downing spent time talking about why he signed up for the Air Force after 9/11, saying it shows his passion for the United States and makes him the most able to understand veterans' issues. He criticized Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, for not doing more to fix problems with the agency.
“Jon Tester tries to campaign that he’s a great advocate,” Downing said. “I am a veteran. I have been in war zones. I have gone to war for this nation.”
Olszewski, who spoke after Fagg’s comments critical of Rosendale, broke some tension in the crowd with a big smile and saying, “Hey, it’s a great day!”
Though he’s raised the least money of any candidate, Olszewski painted that as a positive, meaning he’s “swamp-proof.”
“My job here is to dance with you and put you at the top of my dance card all the way through, not be beholden to big money elsewhere,” Olszewski said. He told the crowd after he announced he was running, he went to Washington, D.C., and was offered money from political groups but turned it down.
“I can’t even tell my kids I’m going to be at their birthday party as an orthopedic surgeon,” Olszewski said. “I am not going to sign anything that way. I will not be tied down to any loyalty or pledge.”
Olszewksi also provided some comic relief during the evening, saying the best line of attack Democrats could have against him are his votes against allowing the sale of raw milk during the 2015 and 2017 Legislature.
“I’m told that my biggest weakness is my opposition to raw milk,” he said, explaining why he thought the bills were bad. “If you want to drink raw milk, you can. I will 100 percent support your right.”