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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Four Men Praising Trump In Primary Fight To Challenge Tester

Republican U.S. Senate candidates Albert Olszewski, Russell Fagg, Troy Downing and Matt Rosendale debate in Helena, April 26, 2018.
Greater Montana Foundation
Republican U.S. Senate candidates Albert Olszewski, Russell Fagg, Troy Downing and Matt Rosendale debate in Helena, April 26, 2018.

Four Republicans are jockeying to replace U.S Senator Jon Tester in tomorrow’s primary election. The Democratic incumbent is seeking his third term.

Presumed frontrunner Matt Rosendale takes plenty of heat for what he is not – a Montana native.

Rosendale left Maryland for Montana 16 years ago.

“There’s only one person I know in this world that was able to select where he was born, and that was 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem," Rosendale said. "The rest of us, we just get to pick where we’re going to live.”

When Rosendale isn’t dodging the carpetbagging barbs, he’s busy establishing his conservative bona fides.

Rosendale, like his three primary opponents, supports the Trump agenda, which he says is based on three pillars: economic expansion, national defense and "preservation of our culture."

In one campaign ad, he topples a television featuring video of Jon Tester into a pile of cow manure, looks directly into the camera and declares:

“Montana needs a conservative who’s willing to back the Trump agenda and not kowtow to Nancy Pelosi. The Trump tax cuts mean business and that’s why I approved this message.”

Former Billings judge Russ Fagg parts ways with the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, saying they will end up hurting Montana industry.

Fagg wastes no opportunity to remind voters that he’s a true fourth-generation Montanan and a law and order candidate.

“The difference between right and wrong is black and white, because facts don’t lie," says a narrator in a recent television add for Fagg. "Criminal illegal aliens threaten America," it continues. "That’s why judge Russ Fagg supports President Trump’s call for secure borders and the death penalty; if we don’t secure our borders they’ll never stop coming. Murderous illegal aliens must be stopped from killing again. I’m Judge Russ Fagg and I approve this message.”

Fagg denied complaints that ad had racist undertones, but eventually pulled it from his YouTube channel.

It also highlighted his support for the death penalty, a position not shared by Matt Rosendale, a Catholic who opposes both capital punishment and abortion.

Big Sky businessman Troy Downing made his enthusiasm for President Donald Trump abundantly clear in this muscular ad that debuted back in March

“Troy Downing is a Montanan, war vet, helicopter and jet pilot and big supporter of President Trump," the narrator says. 

The ad labeled Senator Jon Tester as a Trump opponent.

Team Tester portrays the Democratic incumbent as a moderate who’s sponsored 13 bills that President Trump has signed into law.

Downing, meanwhile, faces his own set of residency questions, including accusations of trying to buy Montana resident hunting or fishing licenses as an out-of-state resident. Downing was cited for seven misdemeanors in July 2017.

He refuted the allegations during the first Republican debate earlier this spring.

“I left my Montana home," Downing said. "I got in my Montana car with my Montana registration, took my Montana driver’s license and I bought my Montana fishing license. The thought that I would try to save 50 bucks on a fishing license is ludicrous.” 

Downing successfully moved to have his trial on those charges postponed from just before Tuesday to July 25th.

State Senator Al Olszewski describes himself as the contest’s dark horse. With only $39,000 cash on hand, he trails all the other Republican candidates.

He tells the Associated Press that makes him the grassroots, anti-establishment favorite.

Olszewski says he would have opposed the federal omnibus spending bill signed by President Trump.

He wants to eliminate waste through entitlement reform and use additional revenue sources, like royalties from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to pay down the federal deficit.

"And the first place I would pay it off is the Medicare trust fund and the Social Security trust fund," Olszewski said. "They're not entitlements, they were set up to be a retirement program that everybody voted for for a common good." 

Like Matt Rosendale and Troy Downing, Olszewski opposes the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Water Compact, a negotiated agreement to codify tribal, private and state water rights.

"Western Montana was not at the table, we were on the table," Olszewski said. "So as your next U.S. Senator that's one of the first things I'm going to do. I’m going to kill this compact and create a compact that’s no different than the other seven tribes.”

Russ Fagg balks at the federal cost estimates of the compact but describes the legislation that passed the statehouse as the best that could be done. Without it, he says, the issue would drag on in perpetuity.

Matt Rosendale closed out the pre-primary financial reporting period with $392,000 in the bank. The conservative Club for Growth has spent over $1 million on his behalf.

Russ Fagg follows with $363,000 cash on hand. He’s financially backed by a number of Montana politicians including former congressmen Rick Hill and the late Governor Judy Matz.

Troy Downing is a distant third with almost $73,000 reported in this last period. He’s spent a total of over $1 million of his own money on his campaign.

All these figures pale in comparison to the $6.3 million in incumbent Jon Tester’s campaign war chest.

That will certainly change as November’s general election draws near.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.