Donald Trump Jr. Rallies Republican Support for Montana Candidates

GOP frontrunners for federal and state office joined the former president’s son in Missoula

By Mara Silvers, Montana Free Press
Republican supporters wave a GOP flag. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Former president Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., rallied on Sunday for leading Republican candidates in Montana, urging support for a conservative agenda that he said will help win races up and down ballots in November.

The “Protecting Freedom” event was hosted by the recently formed Montana Association of Conservatives, or MAC-PAC, and featured speeches from U.S. Senate hopeful Tim Sheehy, U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke, Gov. Greg Gianforte and conservative political commentator Alex Bruesewitz.

Speaking to a crowd of roughly 300 people at the University of Montana, the speakers criticized the Biden administration, Democrats in Congress, Montana Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester and the news media. They also hammered on divisive issues they cast as a threat to the future of America and Montana, including social acceptance of transgender people, diversity and equity initiatives, and immigration at the U.S. southern border.

“It’s not just your American dream that’s being crushed. It’s everyone’s,” Trump Jr. said. “We have the ability to fight back politically with this team. So we need everyone out there for the governor, for Tim, for Ryan.” He also called for supporting conservative down-ballot candidates, including those in legislative and school board races.

The event was one of the first major fundraisers for MAC-PAC, a Missoula-based political action committee that its founders, Cameo Flood, Alan Ault and Tori Fort, said intends to back conservative candidates around the state. The afternoon lineup of speakers did not include any Republicans competing for the U.S. House district that represents eastern Montana, an open seat as a result of incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale’s decision not to seek re-election.

All the Montana candidates who spoke on Sunday are the apparent frontrunners in their respective races but are facing Republican challengers in the June 4 primary, some of whom were disinvited from the event in recent days. Most of their speeches focused on beating Democrats in November, retaking the U.S. Senate and reelecting Trump to the White House, all in service of pushing back against liberal policies and social values. 

“America is a crossroads. There’s no other way to say it. We are at a crossroads as a nation,” said Sheehy, who received standing ovations at the beginning and end of his remarks. “Are we going to choose tyranny, control, government? Or are we going to choose freedom and liberty and thought and enlightenment? Because that’s what our movement is based on. Despite the left’s attempt to paint us as hateful bigots, racists, xenophobes, transphobes, I’m pretty sure none of you are that.”

Sheehy, a Navy Seal veteran who has never before held public office, began his speech with a joke he’s told repeatedly on the campaign trail that belittles transgender identities: riffing that his last name, pronounced “she-he,” could also be his pronouns.

“In third grade, I hated my last name. It was terrible. I got made fun of all the time,” Sheehy said to a laughing crowd. “And now I love it. I’m a welcome species today. That illustrates the lunacy that we are living in in this country right now.”

Sheehy and other speakers repeatedly linked quashing liberal cultural trends with defeating Democrats in this year’s election. Ousting Tester, Sheehy and other speakers told the crowd, is essential to reclaiming Republican control of the U.S. Senate next year — and, they said, ensuring that Montanans are represented by someone with reliable conservative values.

“[T]his seat will determine whether we control the Senate for the next decade or not. That’s how important this is,” Sheehy said. Tester, he continued, “represents a state that Donald Trump won by 20 points. And he continues to vote every single day to support Joe Biden’s agenda. We have to put a stop to it.”

Trump won the presidential vote by 20 percentage points in Montana in 2016. His margin of victory shrank to 16 percentage points in 2020. Tester won his last election, in 2018, by 3.5 percentage points over Rosendale, the Republican challenger.

Bruesewitz, a prominent Trump ally, later called Tester “a fraud” who campaigns as a politically moderate farmer from Big Sandy “every six years” but typically votes in line with the Democratic caucus.

In a statement Sunday evening, Tester campaign spokesperson Monica Robinson dismissed the Republican jabs and levied some in return.

“Outsiders trying to buy this seat will always try to turn Jon Tester into something he’s not, because they can’t beat the third-generation dirt farmer from Big Sandy,” Robinson said, later referring to Sheehy as a “multimillionaire out-of-stater” from the Minneapolis suburbs.

Zinke and Gianforte focused on their records in office as they stumped for their respective re-election bids. Zinke is expected to face a rematch against Democrat Monica Tranel, whom he defeated by four percentage points in 2022. Gianforte will likely run against Democrat Ryan Busse, though both face primary challengers.

Zinke, also a veteran of the Navy Seals, touted his votes against foreign aid packages to Ukraine and Israel, the latter because it included humanitarian aid for Gaza, advocating instead for reducing federal spending. Gianforte made his pitch for serving another four years in the governor’s office, saying he has delivered on returning taxpayer dollars to Montana residents, keeping the size and budget of state government in check, and attracting businesses to the state.

Gianforte specifically pointed to his efforts to pitch Montana as a location to companies in the firearms industries at the SHOT Show firearms industry conference in Las Vegas this year.

“The pitch is really simple. ‘Hey, you want to move back to America?’” Gianforte said, receiving laughs from the audience. “We came back with over 40 leads from the SHOT show this year of people looking to expand operations or relocate to Montana.”

All of Sunday’s speakers urged the voters in the room to talk to other Montanans about their support for conservative candidates for the rest of the election cycle. Grassroots campaign tactics, they said, are more important than ever in a year when Republicans, they said, might be outspent by liberal interests and given short shrift in news coverage.

“My ask is this: If you love your country, which I know you do, because you’re here, volunteer. Make some calls,” Zinke said. “Our country is worth fighting for.”

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.