HELENA — Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in the race to challenge Democratic incumbent Jon Tester in November, but no clear winner emerged late Tuesday in the Democratic primary for U.S. House.
Rosendale, 57, defeated three other candidates in the GOP primary with the support of deep-pocketed GOP donors who have already spent more than $3 million boosting his campaign.
Republicans hope to complete a sweep of Montana’s federal offices by defeating Tester, whom President Donald Trump has attacked for releasing misconduct allegations that derailed his nominee to head the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We’ve got an incredible team, we’ve worked extremely hard and we’ve got a lot of work left to do,” Rosendale said. “This win is just the first lap, and we’ve got a lot of race in front of us.”
Tester was unopposed in the primary and advanced to the general election. Tester campaign manager Christie Roberts called Rosendale, a Maryland native, an East Coast developer funded by special interests.
“Montanans can’t trust him to represent us in the U.S. Senate,” Roberts said.
Outside groups already spent more than $5 million on the GOP primary and on attack ads against Tester, putting the race on track to be one of the most expensive in Montana history.
Much of the anti-Tester spending came after Trump said in April that the senator “will have a big price to pay” for releasing the allegations that Ronny Jackson drank on the job and distributed prescription medication.
Tester has said outside spending would have come whether or not Trump inserted himself into the race. Some political analysts say Trump’s remarks may actually help Tester by galvanizing Democratic turnout in the fall.
Republican voter Mike Worl of Billings liked how Rosendale came across in television commercials but said what mattered most was to “get Tester out of there.”
“I liked Tester in the beginning but he really became disappointing,” Worl said. “Tester’s still got a lot of clout, but he’s done a lot of damage to himself, too.”
None of the four GOP candidates running Tuesday was the party’s first choice. Neither Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke nor popular Attorney General Tim Fox wanted to run, opening the race to Rosendale, retired judge Russ Fagg, state Sen. Al Olszewski and businessman Troy Downing.
Rosendale declared himself the leader early on, but the contest appeared to tighten last month as outside groups began pouring in money. Fagg ran ads questioning whether Rosendale would be soft on criminals who are in the country illegally. A pro-Rosendale group hit back at Fagg with attack ads questioning his judicial record.
Voter turnout for Tuesday’s election was on track to be higher than the last three midterm primaries, when about a third of all registered voters cast ballots.
A Tester supporter said he believes the stronger turnout may be partly due to a growing backlash against Trump.
“This is the election that’s the referendum on Trump,” Ryan Hazen, 34, said after voting in Helena. “I think they came out for him in a big way (in the 2016 election), but his tenure since then I don’t think has reflected favorably on him or his administration or his priorities, and I think the people of Montana see that.”
Tester, who did not receive a majority of the votes in his election victories in 2006 and 2012, also faces a potential Green Party challenger who could siphon away some Democratic voters. The Libertarian Party also will have a candidate in November’s election.
Republicans have been gaining ground on Democrats holding federal and statewide offices in every Montana election since 2010. Two years ago, GOP candidates won every statewide race except the governor’s office, which incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock won.
In the U.S. House race, a Democratic nominee will to win a seat that has been held by Republicans since 1997. The two leaders in the five-way race were former state lawmaker Kathleen Williams of Bozeman and Billings attorney John Heenan. Hundreds of votes separated the two as returns trickled in statewide late Tuesday.
They hope to win the seat that Gianforte took last year in a special election to fill Zinke’s term after Trump selected him to be U.S. Interior Department secretary.
The day before the 2017 special election, Gianforte knocked Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground and hit him, according to witnesses, though the candidate and his campaign initially said Jacobs was the instigator.
Gianforte eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, and the attack figures to be a major theme in this year’s general election. On the anniversary of the attack last month, the Montana Democratic Party filed a formal request for a congressional ethics investigation into Gianforte’s statements blaming Jacobs.
Gianforte’s loss to Bullock in 2016, when Trump won Montana by 20 percentage points, also makes Democrats believe the lawmaker is vulnerable.
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