Tester to Face GOP Newcomer Tim Sheehy in Election Key to Senate Control

Sheehy is a former Navy SEAL backed by former President Donald Trump, Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Republican establishment

U.S. Capitol. Wikicommons

HELENA — Three-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican newcomer Tim Sheehy cruised to victory in Montana’s primary election Tuesday, setting up a contentious November election that could tip the balance of power in the closely divided U.S. Senate.

Sheehy is a former Navy SEAL backed by former President Donald Trump, Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Republican establishment.

Beyond the race’s national implications, it offers Republicans a chance to complete their lock on higher offices in Montana after years of picking off Democratic elected officials in what was once a more politically diverse state.

A loss by Tester, who has survived three close elections even as the national political landscape shifted, would oust the final Democrat still holding high office in Montana.

Montana voters in Tuesday’s primary election were also selecting candidates for an open U.S. House seat being vacated by far-right conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale.

Donald Trump’s name appeared on the ballot Tuesday for the first time since his conviction on felony crimes, as a handful of states held the last Republican presidential primary contests of 2024.

The Tester and Sheehy campaigns already have been pounding each other on the airwaves in an advertising blitz that’s expected to intensify as November approaches.

Tester — a former state Senate president who’s considered a moderate in Washington — has emphasized his work for veterans and his roots as a third-generation farmer in central Montana. He’s also played up concerns that wealthy outsiders such as Sheehy are buying up property and driving housing prices and taxes higher.

Sheehy has sought to saddle Tester with public dissatisfaction over President Joe Biden’s struggles to stem illegal immigration on the southern border. And he’s appealing to supporters of Trump, who won Montana by 16 percentage points in 2020, by claiming in a social media post Monday without providing specifics that Tester supported the former president’s conviction last week in a New York hush money case.

Tester won his three previous Senate races by slim margins.

The open U.S. House seat in solidly Republican, largely rural eastern Montana features a seven-way GOP contest.

Contenders include former six-term former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, state Auditor Troy Downing and state education Superintendent Elsie Arntzen.

Rehberg emerged from retirement and joined the race late after Rosendale launched a short-lived U.S. Senate campaign.

Downing was endorsed by Trump on Monday. He outraised the other primary candidates and touted his experience as auditor and running businesses in the private sector.

Arntzen, among the most conservative of the candidates, has leaned heavily into cultural issues such as her opposition to transgender girls participating in girls’ athletics.

Four candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination in the district. The winner will face long odds in November.

The state’s western House district, which includes the cities of Bozeman, Missoula and Butte, is expected to be more competitive in the general election.

Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke fought off a challenge by Mary Todd from the party’s right flank. Zinke narrowly won his 2022 primary.

Democrat and environmental attorney Monica Tranel, who lost to Zinke by 3 percentage points in 2022, is running unopposed in the western House district primary.

Gianforte is seeking a second term alongside Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, while facing criticism for large property tax increases as property values increased. With a historic budget surplus following federal stimulus spending due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state paid off its debt, reduced the top income tax rate and authorized up to $1,250 in one-time rebates to individual income tax payers.

Gianforte also fought off a challenge from the right by state Rep. Tanner Smith, who represents part of Flathead County.

In the Democratic primary for governor, former firearms executive Ryan Busse of Kalispell won against Helena attorney Jim Hunt.


Brown reported from Billings, Montana.