State Auditor Matt Rosendale defeated former state District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings and two others Tuesday night in Montana’s four-way Republican U.S. Senate primary, setting up a face-off with Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester this fall in one of the most-watched Senate races in the country.
Rosendale trailed early after Fagg posted a strong showing in votes from his home county of Yellowstone, but fought his way back to take the lead shortly after 10 p.m. and then slowly pulled away, winning with 34 percent of the vote to Fagg’s 28 percent. Big Sky businessman Troy Downing and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell each had 19 percent, with Downing edging Olszewski for third by 600 votes.
In a speech to supporters shortly before midnight Tuesday, Rosendale said the two-term Tester has "gone Washington" and is aligned with Democrats who are blocking President Trump’s agenda.
"We need to send President Trump some conservative reinforcement who will end the liberal obstruction and work with him to pass his agenda of making American great again," Rosendale said. "Because what’s good for our nation is great for Montana."
Tester’s campaign released a statement Tuesday night, calling Rosendale an "East Coast developer who looks out for himself," compared to Montana native Tester who "relentlessly defends Montana and holds government accountable." Rosendale is originally from Maryland, and moved to the state about 15 years ago.
The two men are scheduled to hold their first debate July 17 in Whitefish, at the Montana Broadcasters Association annual meeting.
The Senate race also features two other candidates this fall: Libertarian Rick Breckenridge and Green Party nominee Steve Kelly, who won that party’s primary contest on Tuesday over Tim Adams. The state Democratic Party has sued to throw Green Party candidates off the ballot, saying it didn’t properly qualify them. A state judge will decide the issue this summer.
Tester is considered one of the more vulnerable incumbent Democratic U.S. senators in the country, running for re-election in a state where Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Tester had no opposition in his own primary Tuesday.
Rosendale, the only statewide officeholder in the GOP primary, entered the race as the likely favorite, buoyed by his alliance with national conservative groups that spent $3 million on ads and other material to support him. Club for Growth Action, one of those groups, spent more than $1.1 million on TV ads bashing Fagg’s judicial record – ads that Fagg dismissed as grossly misleading.
Fagg fired back late in the race, adopting many Democratic criticisms of Rosendale, such as calling him "Maryland Matt," and also had the support of many in the state Republican Party’s old guard. Fagg pitched himself as the Republican best-positioned to take down Tester, as a Montana native with a long and varied political resume.
Fagg had a big lead early Tuesday after polls closed and Yellowstone County posted its results; he won his home county by nearly 10,000 votes. But Rosendale won most of the state’s other counties and did well in much of western Montana — except Flathead County, which Olszewski won. Rosendale ended the night with an 8,300-vote victory margin.
Downing, making his first run for political office, sold himself as a non-politician who will be strongly supportive of President Trump. The former tech entrepreneur also has played up his military service, enlisting in the Air Force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and serving in Afghanistan.
Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon, called himself the dark horse of the race, running a low-budget campaign using radio ads and saying he’ll enter the race without the baggage of any other candidate.
Forty-one percent of Montana voters turned out Tuesday — an above-average showing for a non-presidential year primary, boosted by a huge surge in absentee votes.