HELENA — Four Republican candidates competing for the chance to take on incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester this fall are meeting for the first time Thursday in a debate in Bozeman.
Their campaigns have been running for months, but the debate in many ways will be the voters’ introduction to businessman Troy Downing, former judge Russell Fagg, state Sen. Al Olszewski and State Auditor Matt Rosendale with the June 5 primary drawing closer.
Each candidate is trying to stake a claim as a legitimate contender after the party’s first choice to challenge Tester, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, passed to take his spot in President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
The party faithful seem divided so far about the field. Rosendale touts his name recognition and support from Washington insiders like former presidential adviser Steve Bannon. Fagg emphasizes his deep Montana roots and endorsements from old-school state Republicans like former governors Marc Racicot and Judy Martz, who is now deceased.
Downing, a relative newcomer to the state and to politics, has some hefty backers, including Lola Zinke, the interior secretary’s wife, and former Vice President Dan Quayle.
Olszewski lacks the big-name endorsements, but he’s choosing to embrace his role.
“I’m the grassroots, dark-horse guy here,” Olszewski said. “What I see from my contenders is that they are sponsored, backed by high dollars of different factions.”
The winner of the primary will seek to stop Tester from winning a third term in November, in what will be one of the most closely watched elections this year. Two Green Party candidates and a Libertarian candidate are also running.
Tester’s campaign declined to comment on Thursday’s debate at Montana State University.
The meeting will be a chance for the Republican candidates to highlight the differences between each other instead of simply beating up on Tester. Some, like Olszewski and Downing, plan to take advantage of the opportunity to try to set themselves apart.
“My goal is to show how different the candidates are and that I’m the only one who can beat Jon Tester,” Downing said.
Rosendale, however, said he considers himself the front-runner to win the GOP primary because of his name recognition and electability in a general election. So he plans to stick to bashing Tester, not the other Republican candidates.
“My race is against Jon Tester,” Rosendale said.
Fagg said he wants to differentiate himself from the other candidates, but “I’m not going to turn on my primary opponents.”
The debate is scheduled for 7 p.m. The host organization, College Republicans at MSU, plans to stream the debate on its Facebook page.
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