Steve Bannon, leader of the charge against the Republican party establishment and former adviser to President Donald Trump, has endorsed Matt Rosendale in Montana’s 2018 Senate race.
Rosendale tweeted out a photo of himself and Bannon on Wednesday morning, saying “Met w/ Steve Bannon a few weeks ago. Thrilled to have earned his support!”
Rosendale’s campaign released a statement about the endorsement:
“I was thrilled to have met with Steve Bannon a few weeks ago. I’m proud to have earned the support of both Steve and the Pro-Trump group Great America Alliance."
The statement also indicated support for Trump.
"President Trump's agenda is good for the nation and great for Montana. And right now we have a tremendous opportunity to implement it. But clearly, there aren't the 51 votes needed in the Senate to move the ball forward."
Bannon is a former chief strategist to Trump who left that position earlier this year. Since his departure, he returned as chairman of Breitbart News and declared a "season of war" against establishment Republicans, with a goal of defeating sitting members of the Republican Party in Congress by challenging them in primaries.
Rosendale is Montana's commissioner of securities and insurance, winning the election for that position last November. He hopes to win Montana’s Republican Senate primary to run against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Big Sandy who has held the seat since 2007. This year’s race is expected to be another close and expensive contest, something to which Tester is no stranger.
The Republican primary is already packed, with Rosendale seen as one of the front-runners. Other candidates include former Billings judge Russ Fagg, Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, state senator and doctor Albert Olszewski, James Dean of Havre and Ron Murray of Belgrade.
Rosendale is second to Downing so far in fundraising among Republicans, with $410,000 in contributions, though of Downing's $492,000, $350,000 come from a loan from the candidate. Tester raised $1.2 million over the last three months, bringing his total to $8 million.
Downing's campaign manager, Lola Zinke, also recently posted a photo of herself taken with Bannon on Twitter, with a heart emoji and the text "this man! #SteveBannon." Zinke is the wife of U.S. Secretary of the Interior and former congressman from Montana Ryan Zinke.
Bannon has been called everything from racist to a white nationalist and anti-Semitic, though he counters that he is simply an economic nationalist. He is also vocal in his disgust with the mainstream media and has used Breitbart to push out anti-immigrant and white nationalists views. He has said in the past his website is a "platform" for the alt-right, though has denied he is a member of that movement.
He has endorsed Kelli Ward in Arizona, who is running against Sen. Jeff Flake in the Republican primary there. He also endorsed Roy Moore, a state judge with a history of controversial actions and statements, who defeated Sen. Luther Strange, appointed to the seat when Jeff Sessions became attorney general. Since his departure from the White House, Bannon has traveled the country courting wealthy donors in an attempt to sway their financial support to his chosen candidates.
Chris Meagher, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, criticized the endorsement Thursday.
"It's no surprise that Steve Bannon is backing wealthy real estate developer Matt Rosendale because they are both trying to sabotage Montanans' health care," Meagher said.
In a speech last week, Bannon called Trump's move last week to end cost-sharing reduction payments to insurance companies a move to "blow up" health insurance exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act. Rosendale initially told Montana insurance companies selling on the exchange they could not raise rates to make up for the lost payments, but that was reversed earlier this week.
Lee Banville, an associate professor and political analyst at the University of Montana, said Bannon’s name is a “lightning rod” for many people, but the endorsement will probably not sway a great number of voters in the primary.
“I don’t think this will shift the conversation dramatically,” he said.
The endorsement could open up a larger funding network for Rosendale.
“For people who see the political system as not hearing the message of 2016, this is the kind of endorsement that can get a lot of people fired up and giving money to Rosendale," Banville said.
Rosendale has long been identified as an outspoken conservative, Banville said, so it’s unclear if the Bannon endorsement will scare anyone away.
“He was probably most famous before this for an ad in which he was shooting at a drone, in what was both a statement about government surveillance but also a pretty subtly veiled shot at his competitor, Ryan Zinke."
What’s less clear is how the endorsement would matter if Rosendale wins the primary, Banville said.
“The degree to which he’s embraced Bannon is a little bit of a risk to voters later on if Tester, assuming he’s the nominee, can make the kind of argument Rosendale is not your typical conservative, he’s something more extreme.”