HELENA — Republican candidates for a Montana U.S. Senate seat threw gentle jabs at each other during a debate Thursday, but they positively piled on Democratic incumbent Jon Tester over the failed nomination of President Donald Trump’s Veterans Affairs cabinet pick.
Former District Judge Russ Fagg was the most aggressive of the four candidates. He repeatedly went after State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who considers himself the front runner with 40 days before the June 5 primary election and a little more than two weeks before absentee ballots are mailed.
All four are seeking to be the one to spoil Tester’s campaign for a third term in what will be a closely watched race as Republicans try to win Senate seats now held by Democrats in states won by Trump in 2016.
Fagg questioned Rosendale over 2015 documents related to a property sale that listed Rosendale as a Maryland resident. He also wondered why Rosendale no longer supports transferring ownership of land owned by the federal government to the state, when he did just four years ago.
As he has in past meetings, Fagg emphasized his Montana roots, trying to distinguish himself from Rosendale and businessman Troy Downing, both of whom moved to Montana from other states.
Fagg also managed to turn a question about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s endorsement of Downing into an opportunity to criticize former Trump administration adviser Steve Bannon’s endorsement of Rosendale.
“That troubles me even more than Michael Flynn,” he said.
Flynn, who was fired in 2017 and has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, is scheduled to campaign for Downing on May 6. Bannon left the administration and had a falling out with the president, with Trump saying Bannon had lost his mind when he was quoted in a book criticizing the president’s children.
Rosendale said the land deed documents that listed him as a Maryland resident was an error made by the title company and that he changed his views on federal land ownership after meeting with voters who mostly backed keeping federal ownership.
He also shrugged off the relevance of being born in Maryland.
“I’ll tell you, there’s only one person I know in this world that was able to select where he was born, and that was 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem,” Rosendale said. “The rest of us, we just get to pick where we’re going to live.”
The one area in which Rosendale, Fagg, Downing and state Sen. Al Olszewski were in agreement was in following Trump’s lead in railing against Tester for his role in stymieing the nomination of Ronny Jackson to lead the VA.
Trump blamed Tester after the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee postponed a hearing on Jackson as allegations surfaced that the nominee freely dispensed prescription drugs, drank to excess and created a hostile work environment. The president said Tester would “have a big price to pay” in his state.
All four candidates said Tester denied Jackson due process without verifying the allegations’ truth.
“We have our own senator from Montana who bullied a fine man to the point where he decided to pull himself out of the confirmation hearings,” Olszewski said.
The decision to postpone the hearing was made by both the Veterans Affairs Committee Republican chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Tester, the top Democrat. Tester said in a statement that it’s his constitutional responsibility to make sure veterans get a strong, thoroughly vetted leader who will fight for them.