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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

A Glance At The Candidates In Montana's 2018 Senate Race

MTPR News Director Eric Whitney: By my count there are at least five formally declared candidates, and then there's Billings Judge Russel Fagg, who hasn't officially declared, but he certainly looks like a candidate. Is Fagg really just exploring a Senate run, or is he just saying that?

MSU Political Science Professor David Parker joins us with a look at the 2018 Senate race.

MSU Political Science Professor David Parker: Well, this is a tactic that Greg Gianforte used when he was running for the Governor's seat, it's a tactic that presidential candidates use. They basically want to set up a committee to raise money and do certain activities. Likely this is because he's a judge, and yes, it's likely that he's trying to prevent actually declaring as a candidate so he can actually leave his position on his timeline. Democrats are making hay about it. I don't think it's any particularly big deal.

EW: Among the other contenders for the GOP Senate nomination, where does Russell Fagg stand in relation the them? And who do you see among the rest of the field as particularly strong?

DP: Judges are interesting characters, right? They have to be retained, so they kinda-sorta kind of have to run elections here and there, but those elections are really different, and they're not really competitive. So it's kind of hard to classify him as a candidate.

David Parker
Credit courtesy
David Parker

I'll say this: Judges write opinions, and if you've been a judge for a long time, those opinions can easily become fodder in an election campaign. But, here's the thing about Russ Fagg: He comes from a prominent political family. His father was in the state legislature, back in the '80s and Denny Rehberg, a very young Denny Rehberg, beat him in 1982 for a seat in the House. So, he comes from a political family, he understands politics, and he's from Billings. He's well known, he's got a well known name. And Billings is essential. You can win a race or lose a race easily in Yellowstone county. So that's definitely to his advantage.

But I would say he's not quite in the quality tier that other candidates Republicans had. Frankly, the best candidates that Republicans kind of had in their stable took a pass. That would be Ryan Zinke, of course he went on to be secretary of the Interior. Enormous fundraising capacity around the country. And then of course Tim Fox, the attorney general, who is quite popular here in the state.

EW: To me that leaves the one most prominent name being Matt Rosendale, who won statewide office as state auditor last year.

DP: Of all the candidates that have announced, he's the one that's probably the strongest. He's probably the one that's got the most support, among Republicans, I should say. He's already got a lot of support from state legislators. He has run for statewide office and done so successfully. He's demonstrated some capacity to raise money for a statewide race. He's served in the legislature, he's served in leadership.

He in the state senate developed what I would say was a competent legislative record. He didn't sponsor many bills, but the bills he sponsored got passed, and even got signed by Democratic governors. In fact, actually, in some respects, the path to the US Senate for Matt Rosendale is looking suspiciously like the the incumbent's path, Jon Tester, who served in senate leadership as well. So he does actually have some pretty strong qualifications to run for office.

There are some negatives. Weakness one, it's very easy to say that he's opportunistic. He ran for the House seat in 2014, he jumps into the auditor's race in 2016, wins, and he doesn't even have the seat warm enough and he's already running for the US Senate.

So clearly that's a line of argument that's being developed probably most prominently by Troy Downing so far.

Two, he was not born in Montana as well, and in fact, depending on your perspective he's a relatively recent arrival. He arrived in the early aughts here in Montana. Now, he has not committed the sin of living in Missoula or Bozeman, so check that off, he lives in Glendive. He has a pretty thick Eastern Maryland accent. In the state auditor's race we didn't hear from Matt Rosendale very much in those advertisements, and I think that was on purpose, because he doesn't sound like a Montanan. So I think those are some disadvantages.

Some might argue he would be too conservative for the electorate, but the thing I'll tell you about Matt Rosendale is I think he is a pretty straightforward person, and I think Montanans will respect that at the very least.

EW: What about the incumbent, Jon Tester? How well positioned is he to retain his seat for a third term?

DP: He got first that first crucial test, which was re-election in 2012. So after that it's harder to take out an incumbent. But Jon Tester would acknowledge himself that he will always be in a vulnerable position being a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state. If you look at the numbers, he won with about 48-and-change percent of the vote in 2012, and that was actually a slight decline in percentage of vote from 2006.

He's raised a very sizable chunk of money, he's well on pace, in fact probably ahead of pace where he was in 2012. He has lots of connections developed by being chair of the DSCC (Democratic Senate Campaign Committee).

His best gift, frankly, was Hillary Clinton losing. It's going to be a lot easier for him to get re-elected without being tagged with an unpopular Democratic administration.

Cook Political Report - who does a good job of kind of figuring out where these races sit - Cook basically has placed the Tester race in the 'likely Democratic' column. It's not 'tossup,' it it's not 'lean Democratic,' it's 'likely Democratic' column.

There are about seven other Democratic senators who Cook sees as more vulnerable than Jon Tester. So I would say he's in reasonably decent shape.

EW: How do you see the 2018 Senate race compared to the 2012 race that you wrote about in your book Battle for the Big Sky?

DP: That was a barn burner of a race. Republicans had gotten a really respected, quality challenger in Denny Rehberg. These cadidaates I don't think they're quite up there with Denny Rehberg. But, the other major difference is, Denny Rehber announced for that office in February of 2011, and the first ads started late March, early April 2011. We've seen some outside spending, but nowhere near the amount.

Denny Rehberg had a token primary challenger, and there are a lot more Republicans running in this race.

The way I see this race - its getting off a little later. I don't think it's going to draw as much money. Democrats are sitting there kind of happy about - they think a primary is going to lead to a damaged general election candidate. I would caution them a little bit.

If you recall, many of the Republican candidates who ran for the House in 2014 in that primary showed up later, as candidates who ran for statewide office and won in 2016, including Matt Rosendale.

So, I look at this primary, and see it as an opportunity for Republicans to get better, and actually build a bigger stable of potential officeholders into the future. Democrats should probably maybe find more candidates to run for office, and maybe actually encourage competitive primaries to help their candidates get better along the way. If Democrats are lulled into a sense of complacency by the fact that there are lots of republicans running, I think it's a big mistake.

EW: Anything else you're going to be watching closely in the 2018 Senate race?

DP: We haven't talked about Troy Downing, and of course, the thing I want to say about Troy Downing is this: He has a lot of money that he could put into the race himself. He was successful businessperson. I guess he basically ran a company that had storage units out in California.

He lives in Big Sky, not necessarily connecting with regular Montanans. And he's from California. But, he has an interesting story, because after 9/11 he joined the Air Force and served, and that can be a very compelling narrative, too. So he could give Rosendale a reasonable run, so we'll see what happens.

The other weakness that Rosendale has had is that in 2014 he was limited in his fundraising ability. He basically self-financed his race. He has to demonstrate that he can raise money, and that's important. And if he can't, then his definitely vulnerable to someone like Troy Downing, or Russell Fagg for that matter.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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