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Montana Auditor Matt Rosendale announced Monday he would join the growing field of Republicans running for U.S. Senate in 2018 who aim to unseat Democrat Jon Tester as part of a broader national effort to grow the GOP congressional majority.

“I’ve always said I would serve where Montanans feel I could be the most effective,” Rosendale said Monday, just six months after becoming auditor, a position that primarily regulates insurance and securities industries in Montana.

“I have received calls from across the state who are not satisfied with the job Tester is doing. They feel like he comes back here and acts like a farmer but goes back to Washington, (D.C.) and votes like (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer. He spends far too much time getting publicity getting instead of getting good policy.”

The decision came as no surprise to political observers, especially after two other high-profile Republicans chose not to run. Attorney General Tim Fox confirmed earlier this year he would not enter the race, and Ryan Zinke instead left his post as Montana’s lone U.S. representative to become U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

“Rosendale sat on the sidelines until those two made their decisions,” Montana State University political scientist David Parker said. “If either one of them had made the decision to run, I don’t think Matt would have done it. Matt sees an opportunity in that there’s not another very clear, recognized name out there at the moment.”

The other announced GOP candidates are: state Sen. Albert Olszewski, a Kalispell orthopedic surgeon; Ronald Murray, a Belgrade businessman and former state House candidate; and Troy Downing, the owner of a California-based storage company who lives in Big Sky. Billings Judge Russell Fagg has said he also might join the race.

“Rosendale is obviously the odds-on favorite to get the Republican nomination. He’s certainly the person to beat in the primary,” said University of Montana political scientist Robert Saldin. “He has the network around the state. He will get a lot of assistance. In a way, that trip back to D.C. to shadow (U.S. Sen. Steve) Daines was kind of an indication that he’ll have Daines’ support, whether it’s announced or not. …

"It seems to me he’s lined himself up well to have a clear advantage in terms of party support and money, and that’s on top of the fact he’s run statewide campaigns before.”

Rosendale, a Maryland-born real estate developer, vacationed in Montana for years before moving to the state 16 years ago, buying a ranch outside Glendive. He served two years in the Montana House, starting in 2011, before serving another four years in the Senate, including as majority leader. He had run on a platform that leaned libertarian on economic issues and conservative on social issues when seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. House in 2014. In that race, he practically tied with current Secretary of State Corey Stapleton as runner-up only a few percentage points behind the winner, Zinke.

In November 2016, Rosendale secured 54 percent of the vote to beat Democrat Jesse Laslovich and to take over as state auditor in January.

Democrats have for months attacked Rosendale in press releases and on social media, focusing on his support for a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Montana Democratic Party spokesman Chris Meagher again targeted health care when asked Monday about Rosendale’s announcement.

“Matt Rosendale has failed at his job as insurance commissioner, and has done nothing to keep health care costs down,” Meagher said in a written statement. “He’s not a voice for Montanans, he’s another vote to increase health care costs and take away health care from thousands of Montanans. He's another politician interfering with a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions. And he's another politician in favor of dark money in politics.”

Saldin described Rosendale as on the conservative end of the Republican spectrum and a candidate who is not tentative about speaking his mind.

“He’s definitely more on the more conservative side with a Libertarian flair,” he said. “Relative to some of the other possibilities, like Tim Fox, he has a little bit sharper elbows. He’s a little bit more combative and ideological.”

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Beyond health care, which Rosendale expects will take years and multiple bills to reform, he said other priority issues he plans to discuss during his campaign include supporting business growth by removing unnecessary regulation, defending the Second Amendment, responsible natural resource development and oversight, expansion of federal investment in infrastructure by scaling back spending on social programs best run by states – and finally solving longstanding issues at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  

He also pointed to the Senate’s “critical role” in confirming members of the U.S. Supreme Court as an area where he would differ from Tester, who delayed and ultimately voted against the bench’s newest member, Neil Gorsuch.

Rosendale has started to build his campaign team, with two members of his public office staff volunteering for initial work on his Senate bid: spokesman Kyle Schmauch, a former regional representative for U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and policy administrator Kendall Cotton, who has worked on conservative campaigns in Montana.

Political scientists expect the campaigns for U.S. Senate to gear up soon and for spending to start flooding social media, televisions and radio with advertising.

“It’s unusually late for someone for someone fairly prominent to file,” Parker said. “(Former U.S. Rep. Denny) Rehberg made his announcement in February and adds started in March and early April.”

Tester had amassed nearly $5 million for his war chest as of June 30. Rosendale had spent some of his personal wealth in his bid for auditor and previous campaigns have left him well connected among prominent Montana Republican donors. His campaign staff said he is currently developing a first wave of videos and other digital advertising.

Outside groups, representing special interests and the national parties, also are expected to spend heavily in the race because Tester is seen as weak by some by virtue of being a Democrat in a state where President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 20 points.

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Lee Newspapers state reporter Jayme Fraser emphasizes in investigative journalism and data reporting.

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