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BILLINGS — A number of Republicans are already weighing challenges to Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Several would-be GOP candidates turned up in Billings over the weekend, suggesting there could be a crowded Republican primary to select a Tester challenger. Montana Republican Party delegates met in Billings last Friday and Saturday to select new party leadership.

The would-be candidates include Troy Downing, of Big Sky; Scott Roy McLean, of Missoula; and Kalispell legislator Albert Olszewski; plus a couple other prospects who are sniffing around.

Yellowstone County District Judge Russell Fagg has only said he’ll consider a run for public office after retiring from the bench in October. Nonetheless, the former state Republican legislator took the opportunity to introduce himself to convention attendees last Friday.

Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale kept a close eye on Senate prospects. Rosendale hasn’t said whether he will run for U.S. Senate. Asked by The Gazette on May 31 if he would run for federal office, Rosendale said he would first focus on any insurance changes brought about by the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and then decide.

Another Republican eyeing a run, Kurt Allen Cole, of Troy, missed the Billings event, but told The Gazette on Friday he’s exploring a candidacy.

Debra Lamm, the newly elected chairwoman of the Republican Party, said conservatives haven't been happy with several Tester votes, including his opposition to Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Tester's support for the Iran Nuclear weapons deal also rubbed Republicans the wrong way and stirred interest in political challengers.

Downing said the success of President Donald J. Trump and Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte, neither of whom had previously been elected, is a sign that voters are looking for an outsider.

“I don’t care how smart you are, how good you are, how well-intentioned you are. I think after a certain period you become so institutionalized, you no longer think like a normal American,” Downing said.

Not by coincidence, Downing said politicians stop thinking like the electorate after about 12 years. Tester’s current tenure is 11 years. Downing, who lives in Big Sky, is the head of a California-based self-storage company. He been in the Big Sky area since 1998.

Cole, a former vermiculite miner who suffers from asbestosis after his years working for W.R. Grace in Libby, said there aren’t enough common men in federal politics. The 64-year-old Montana native has done ranch work, milled lumber and mined coal. Friends encouraged him to turn his practical experience to the Senate.

Scott is a Hamilton attorney specializing in estate and business law. He was previously a law clerk for the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he worked closely with Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Olszewski was the first candidate to publicly show interest in challenging Tester. A state legislator, Olszewski is an orthopedic surgeon from Kalispell.

Interest in challenging Tester picked up after Montana Attorney General Tim Fox announced June 5 that he would not run for U.S. Senate. Fox had been considered the most likely Republican pick.


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