A partial slate of candidates seeking the Republican U.S. Senate nomination to challenge incumbent Democrat Jon Tester fielded questions during the Lincoln-Reagan Brunch on April 15, with each contender working to establish a more conservative record and distinguish himself as the strongest recruit to oust the sitting senator this fall.
Although Tester, Montana’s lone congressional Democrat, was the only member of the delegation missing from Sunday’s annual fundraiser, which was sponsored by the Flathead County Republican Central Committee, his name was often invoked as state Sen. Al Olszewski, a Kalispell physician, and State Auditor Matt Rosendale, of Glendive, took aim at the Big Sandy farmer, who is attempting to secure his third term.
The event featured appearances by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, the former Bozeman business partners whose relationship dates back two decades and served them well on the campaign trail as a bona fide Montana success story.
All local candidates for the state Legislature, sheriff and county commissioner were also in attendance at Sunday’s brunch, taking advantage of a silent auction to “Take Out Tester.”
Missing from the candidate forum was former District Judge Russell Fagg and Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, who delivered a brief stump speech before leaving the brunch due to a competing obligation in Bozeman. Fagg asked for support from the local Republican base in a letter, read aloud by Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson, who moderated the forum.
Following introductory remarks by Gianforte, Daines and U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, a Michigan Republican and retired marine, Olszewski and Rosendale took to the stage and fielded questions from Johnson on topics that included the economy, immigration, the military, health care, public lands, and the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water compact, which both pledged to overturn.
The bill, which ratifies a water rights deal between federal and state governments and the CSKT, took more than a decade to negotiate and, despite its approval by the state Legislature, is still awaiting congressional approval prior to implementation.
“We have to kill this bill,” Olszewski said. “It is in the Senate and it needs approval and it has to die there.”
The complex measure quantifies and defines the federally reserved water rights for the tribes and includes protections for those with existing rights, affecting water use on the Flathead Indian Reservation and throughout western Montana.
Rosendale said he served as majority leader in the state Senate when the controversial water compact came up for a vote, eventually passing due to some Republican crossover, despite Rosendale’s efforts to derail it.
“We worked extremely hard to kill that legislation,” Rosendale said. “It was an up-or-down vote with no opportunity to amend. We had the caucus agreeing we were going to oppose, but the problem is we had seven members that decided they were going to support it.”
Olszewski, a physician who started Flathead Orthopedics, noted that both candidates are “battle-tested state legislators” with a record of fighting for conservative values. However, as a native Montanan who was born and raised in Great Falls, Olszewski said he was better suited to take on Tester than Rosendale, who lived in Maryland before purchasing a ranch in Glendive.
Rosendale touted the broad support he has received by Washington insiders like U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee, as well as National Security Adviser John Bolton as evidence that his name recognition will help carry him to victory. He was also endorsed by former presidential adviser Steve Bannon.
“I have already been endorsed by some of the strongest conservatives in the nation,” he said.
Another key message that resonated throughout the three-hour event, which drew about 300 people, was the importance of the party faithful to turn out and vote in the primary and general election.
Noting that the Senate is composed of 51 Republicans, 47 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Daines emphasized the importance of the party strengthening its tenuous grip on the majority by winning a red state Senate seat.
“That is a very, very narrow majority,” Daines said. “We need to send a new senator back to Washington, D.C.”
Tester holds one of the 25 seats the Senate Democratic Caucus is defending next year, and as a Democrat in Republican-leaning state is always vulnerable. Still, he won his 2012 reelection by 4 percentage points, making him a strong contender for a third term.
While political analysts have tied Trump’s slumping popularity to recent Democratic upsets in special elections involving GOP candidates whose candidacies the president attempted to burnish with endorsements, both Daines and Gianforte delivered full-throated endorsements of the administration.
“This president, working with a Republican Congress, has been working to unravel eight years of Obama federal overreach and tyranny,” Daines said.
“Aren’t we so thankful that we have Donald Trump in office?” Gianforte asked, eliciting raucous applause suggesting that support for Trump remains strong in Republican-dominated Flathead County.