Rep. Matt Rosendale may ruin GOP plans to avoid primary in Montana Senate race

Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) may buck Senate Republican leadership and challenge their preferred candidate for the nomination to take on Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) next year.

Tester’s decision to run for a fourth term was a major win for Democrats, giving the party a fighting chance in a state former President Donald Trump carried by over 16 points in 2020. Senate GOP leadership views the seat as within their reach given how red Montana is and worries a crowded primary contest would weaken their candidate in the general election.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have been working for months to recruit the most electable candidates in must-win swing states to retake the majority next year.

Both men have said their path to victory in 2024 relies on wins in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, four states with Democratic incumbents up for reelection. Democrats currently only control the Senate by a 51-49 margin, meaning Republicans only need to net two seats to win back control.

In Montana, Daines, Gov. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) have coalesced around former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy’s candidacy while openly dissuading Rosendale from throwing his hat in the ring to prevent a contentious primary.

Daines, who spent months privately lobbying Sheehy to get in the race, said in late June, “I really like Matt Rosendale, which is why I am encouraging him to build seniority for the great state of Montana in the House and help Republicans hold their majority.”

Asked about reports that it is imperative to him personally to keep Rosendale out of the race in an interview last month, Daines replied the two had been having “honest and productive” conversations. As for whether Rosendale would stay out of the race, Daines said, “That will be Matt’s decision. I honestly don’t know on that. But if we can avoid a contested primary, that’d be the best thing to do.”

Rosendale, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, had the support of the Club for Growth in his unsuccessful 2018 bid against Tester. Club for Growth President David McIntosh had said earlier this year that the club would likely support his campaign for a 2024 rematch, though he walked that back after Sheehy launched his bid.

Despite Sheehy’s establishment support, all signs point to Rosendale launching a Senate bid. He’s been appearing at events in Montana’s 1st Congressional District, a sign of his statewide ambitions, and has reportedly hired a campaign fundraiser.

Rosendale is also working to secure coveted GOP endorsements, locking down the support of Montana’s top Republican legislators last week. State Senate President Jason Ellsworth and state House Speaker Matt Regier announced last Thursday that they and nearly 40 others in the state legislature were backing Rosendale despite him not being in the race yet.

Several of Rosendale’s House Republican colleagues have made statements encouraging his Senate bid, including Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Eli Crane (R-AZ), both in late July.

Rosendale spokeswoman Aashka Varma said in a statement on his potential candidacy that “Rep. Rosendale is the clear choice among Montana voters. He has their overwhelming trust and support, should he decide to run.”

She claimed that Rosendale has “a 54-point lead in a primary against Tim Sheehy and a 5-point lead on Sen. Tester” before adding, “The people of Montana will not elect a candidate who supports Leftist ESG and DEI provisions and sending American troops into Ukraine.”

The party establishment has said Rosendale’s 2018 loss to Tester proves he cannot win statewide. Tester is unlikely to say if he’d prefer to face Sheehy or Rosendale, whom he demonized as “Maryland Matt,” a real estate developer from the Old Line State who falsely claimed to be a rancher during their 2018 contest.

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