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Helena forum

MTN News political reporter Mike Dennison, left, asks a question Thursday night at a debate between the four Republican primary candidates sponsored by the Greater Montana Foundation in Helena. The candidates are, from left, Al Olszewski, Russ Fagg, Troy Downing and Matt Rosendale.

The question came handwritten on a note card, given to the moderator of a Missoula forum for the four Republican candidates seeking to run for U.S. Senate this fall.

“Are there policies of the president you would disagree with and why do you disagree?” the moderator asked on behalf of the anonymous audience member.

Republican President Donald Trump had just weeks earlier signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill expanding the national debt, which gave the candidates an easy answer without having to dig deeply into the Trump presidency.

But even an embrace of fiscal conservatism at the expense of an embrace of the president was short-lived, underscoring the competition among the state's Senate primary candidates to see who can align most closely with Trump.

The candidates are Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, Billings judge Russ Fagg, state legislator Al Olszewski and state Auditor Matt Rosendale. They are seeking to run against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the Democrat from Big Sandy who is seeking his third term. 

Moderators and audience members at public forums for the most part have avoided pushing the GOP primary candidates as to their thoughts on Trump. But as rare as a Trump question is, getting an answer is even more elusive, with the candidates almost always quickly pivoting to talk more about what Trump does that they've liked or even loved, such as the tax bill or a Supreme Court appointment.

No one has been willing to touch the deeper issues that have tarnished the White House since Trump took office nearly 17 months ago, including Cabinet members accused of ethically questionable behavior, payoffs to a porn star after an alleged affair, and an investigation by a special prosecutor into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The Senate, where each candidate hopes to end up in 2019, is designed, along with the House, to provide a check on the executive branch. But checking a president who won Montana by 20 points in 2016 could be a bad move for a Republican trying to come out on top in the party's four-way U.S. Senate primary this year.

“As far as winning the primary, every Republican candidate at this point has to support Trump,” said Jeremy Johnson, Carroll College associate professor of political science.

Politicians who have been critical of Trump have not fared well, Johnson said, pointing to U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who took on Trump, faced a backlash at home and then announced this year he will not seek re-election.

“That has not helped their careers at all,” Johnson said. “Trump remains very popular in the Republican Party and that is true in Montana as well. There's a lot of support for Trump.”

On tariffs, for example, Fagg has been the most comfortable saying when he disagrees with the president, especially on duties charged for steel and aluminum. Downing said it was too early to measure the impacts of tariffs and quickly turned to praise Trump's experience running businesses. Olszewski and Rosendale fell somewhere in the middle, expressing worries about Trump's trade policies but also adopting a wait-and-see approach with quick maneuvers to praise the president.

Trump’s policies, such as on tariffs, can be moving targets, Johnson said, giving candidates room to avoid real answers when asked about them.

That's why it's harder to talk about where people stand on Trump's policy ideas, which can be squishy and change quickly, but far easier to throw support behind Trump as an idea: the Make American Great Again figure who can say things to quickly rally the party's base.

Special counsel

In an interview in early April, Fagg said while all the GOP candidates in the race are generally supportive of the president, he’s “more of a center-right guy.” As a former judge, many of Fagg's comments are rooted in the process of the justice system.

That's apparent in his answer to what he'd like to see happen with the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

"I think there needs to be an independent, but a truly independent investigation of that situation," Fagg said. "When I mean independent I mean independent from politics."

Fagg said he's "too far away" to infer what the possible outcome of the investigation might be. "I was a judge for 22 years," Fagg said. "I really like to be able to listen to both sides."

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Rosendale, who enjoys statewide name recognition as the state auditor and has attracted national financial support, has tried to brand himself as the most conservative in the race. He defended Trump at a forum in Helena last week when asked by a moderator if any of the scandals swirling around the president have made him a liability.

As the most experienced candidate in the primary, Rosendale is good at letting his discussions with voters serve as his answers to questions about issues like the special counsel investigation.

"As I go around the state and talk to the people of Montana, they want to see Mueller conclude his investigation. They want to see him be the one to conclude his investigation, but they want to see it concluded sooner rather than later. The folks I have talked to have not seen any substantial information, so they'd like it to conclude," Rosendale said.

As the primary gets closer, Fagg has attacked Rosendale over his endorsement from Steve Bannon, a far-right idealogue. Bannon was a key part of Trump's campaign and former chief strategist to the president in the White House until he was pushed out after criticizing Trump. Since his departure last August, Bannon has declared a "season of war" against establishment Republicans.

“Steve Bannon is all in for Matt, and that even troubles me more than Michael Flynn,” Fagg said.

Flynn was Trump's first national security adviser, but was fired less than a month after Trump took office after disclosures that he had lied to the vice president about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Downing is bringing Flynn to Montana next week for a fundraiser where attendees can pay $500 for a photo with the retired lieutenant general.

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“In terms of the negatives, I don’t see that being a problem,” Downing said of Flynn. He echoed Trump, saying Flynn is a "casualty of what’s going on in D.C."

In the 2016 election, Downing was critical of Trump on the social media platform Twitter, once calling him "either a liar or an idiot." He's turned 180 degrees since then, naming and praising Trump in forums across the state. He draws parallels between his and Trump's background in business and emphasizes neither he nor Trump come from the world of politics.

“Downing has chosen to be as pro-Trump as possible," Johnson said. 

State legislator Al Olszewski falls near the middle of the pack, lauding Trump for "getting stuff done" but adding no president in his lifetime has been able to serve as his "moral compass." 

Olszewski supported Trump in the 2016 president primary, calling him a "change agent." But Olszewski was also the quickest and loudest to denounce the president for signing the $1.3 trillion spending bill passed by Congress, although he also made a point of criticizing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as well.

Olszewski calls himself "an American conservative" who has "very, very conservative principles and background. But I also believe in the process,'' which he said was violated when the massive spending bill was pushed through so quickly.

Looking ahead

While it's the obvious choice to align with Trump in the primary, Johnson said the general election is a different matter.

“Trump’s numbers are stronger in Montana than the rest of the country,” Johnson said. “But Democratic voters, including in Montana, are energized and there will be fatigue from Trump.”

For true swing voters, Johnson said, that "Trump fatigue" is circling and could hurt a Republican candidate who is hyper-enthusiastic about the president and offers no checks to his actions.

Independent voters are “somewhat more elusive,” Johnson said, and it’s difficult to know what issues will move them in November.

“Right now they need to win the Republican primary, then they have to look to November,” Johnson said.

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