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Montana GOP convention: Leaders set sights on defeating Tester

Former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller speaks at the Montana GOP Convention on June 9, 2023 in Missoula.
Shaylee Ragar
Former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller speaks at the Montana GOP Convention on June 9, 2023 in Missoula.

When Don “K” Kaltschmidt made his case for why the Montana Republican Party should re-elect him as chair, he talked about his tenure so far. In 2020, Republicans swept every statewide and federal race up for election. In 2022, they picked up supermajorities in the state Legislature. In 2024, Kaltschmidt says he has unfinished business to address.

“Sen. Tester is the last prize — give me the chance to take him out,” Kaltschmidt told attendees.

Kaltschmidt was speaking at the state Republican Party convention in Missoula over the weekend. That message won Kaltschmidt a third term as the Montana GOP leader, beating a challenger from a further right wing of the party — and it highlighted the party’s top goal for 2024: defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Factions in the party remain, as they have for decades. Party leaders worry one of those divides could seriously hinder Republicans’ efforts in 2024.

They point to debates over the integrity of national and state elections that dominated Republican discourse after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.

Last summer, the Montana GOP adopted a platform supporting a return to hand-counting ballots amid baseless allegations that ballot tabulation machines could lead to fraud. Some Republican lawmakers continued to push for more stringent election laws during the 2023 legislative session based on unsubstantiated claims that third-party ballot collection and mail-in voting are also susceptible to fraud.

But over the weekend, officials who spoke at the convention, including Gov. Greg Gianforte and Congressman Ryan Zinke, did not touch on election integrity.

Chair Kaltschmidt told reporters the party has been assured by Montana’s Republican Secretary of State that state elections are secure.

“What concerns me is if a message is out there that we don’t have election integrity, there will be some people in our party that won’t vote, and if that happens, we’re going to lose,” Kaltschmidt said.

That echoes messaging from the Republican National Committee. Last week, national leaders announced a campaign called “Bank Your Vote,” encouraging early mail-in voting and third-party ballot collection, saying Republicans will beat Democrats “at their own game.”

Montana’s own junior Sen. Steve Daines is playing a pivotal role in relaying the party’s message nationwide as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He told Republicans at the convention he’s less concerned about Democratic opposition.

“I worry about the failure of Republicans and conservatives to come together,” Daines said.

The 2020 U.S. Senate race in Montana was one of the most expensive in U.S. history. Daines predicts the 2024 race for Tester’s seat will top it, as the outcome could play a role in determining national party control in the chamber.

“So, get ready for hurricane-force winds,” Daines said. “But, at the end of the day, it’s very quantitative. Whoever gets the most votes wins, and we’re going to get the most votes and beat Jon Tester in 2024.”

At the convention to galvanize Republican participation in the election was former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller, whose incendiary speech was laser-focused on Tester.

Miller told the crowd that the Democratic Party has gone “full fascist” and called Tester the “most dangerous” politician in the U.S. Senate.

“How can we hope to save America from the radical left if we can’t even save Montana from Jon Tester?” Miller said.

Tester has positioned himself as a moderate Democrat, opposing the Biden Administration on the Keystone XL pipeline and some immigration policies. But Miller hammered Tester for voting against a southern border wall and supporting the federal Equality Act, a bill that expands protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I don’t want you to be nice or polite this election,” Miller told attendees. “Don’t say, ‘Yeah, I know that Jon Tester is a nice guy and you like him and you’ve known him for a while, but he’s just too liberal.’ No — Jon Tester is a fraud, he’s a liar, he’s a phony and he has to go. He’s an embarrassment to this state, he’s an embarrassment to this country.”

While Tester announced his re-election campaign earlier this spring, a Republican challenger has yet to officially throw their hat in the ring.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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