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Rosendale makes it official. A former Rep. hints at a sudden return. China, China, China!

Matt Rosendale joins the U.S. Senate race. A familiar name in Montana politics may run for Rosendale's House seat. And both Democrats and Republicans target China in their campaign ads.

Campaign Beat is MTPR's weekly political analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune in on-air Saturdays at 9:45 a.m. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Sally Mauk: Holly, it's official. Congressman Matt Rosendale has announced he will run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Jon Tester. This sets up an interesting Republican primary fight.

Holly Michels: It really does, Sally. This was a very long lead up of speculation, hints and Rosendale recently doing everything shy of making it official. He finally entered the race on Friday, coming up to the State Capitol here in Helena and submitting his paperwork to the Secretary of State. This comes after a lot of effort by Republican Party leadership in DC and Montana, trying to persuade him not to run for the seat. That's because the party has handpicked Tim Sheehy, a Minnesota native and former Navy Seal who moved to Bozeman about a decade ago and runs an aerial firefighting company based there.

Republicans see Montana as one of their best chances to flip a senate seat and regain control of the chamber. But first they'll have to choose between a political newcomer or a far-right lawmaker.

Sheehy is who the National Republican Senatorial Committee, that's the committee that works to get Republicans elected to the Senate, picked to run. This cycle, that group is led by Montana Senator Steve Daines, who issued a pretty strong statement after Rosendale's announcement, pretty critical of him joining the race. Sheehy also has the backing of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte and Rosendale's companion in the U.S. House, Ryan Zinke.

There's a lot of reasons that the party is backing Sheehy, including that he hasn't already run against Tester, the incumbent Democrat in the seat right now, and lost to him like Rosendale did in 2018. Sheehy also doesn't have a voting record in Congress to hold against him, where Rosedale has a pretty long list of votes he's taken that put him at the far right wing of his party. You know, he was one of the holdouts during the 15 rounds of voting it took to get Kevin McCarthy elected Speaker of the House a year ago, and then was key in ousting him in the fall.

He also voted against a continuing resolution meant to avoid a government shutdown in December and has been a very vocal critic of what he calls the 'D.C. Cartel' of Republicans like Mitch McConnell. He continued that criticism pretty sharply in interviews with the press just after he filed Friday morning for the Senate seat.

He also, just this last week, took part in a press conference that announced a resolution to declare Trump did not engage in insurrection. He's among one of 65 co-sponsors of that resolution, notably Zinke is not one of those co-sponsors. Rosendale has also said that Sen. Daines has threatened him, saying he'd have billionaires lined up to spend against Rosendale if he joined this race. So we've seen a lot of effort to keep him out.

Sally Mauk: It looks like he's not going to get his good friend, House Speaker Mike Johnson's endorsement, either. Holly.

Holly Michels: Yeah, we saw it reported that Speaker of the House Mike Johnson was going to endorse Rosendale, and then he backed away from that after blowback from the story once it published. Politico had a quote in their story from Rep. Zinke saying Johnson withdrew the vote because Rosendale was the weaker candidate against Tester. There were also rumors, which Rosendale denied again to press Friday, that Rosendale's vote for emergency aid to Israel in exchange for Johnson's support, that there is maybe some quid pro quo there. Rosendale denied that. Shortly after he announced, and he said this in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, Rosendale said he and Johnson have a good relationship.

Sally Mauk: Rob, as we've discussed before, Rosendale will be running as the anti-establishment candidate, even though he's a congressman running in the primary against an opponent who's never held public office. Who's actually the establishment here?

Rob Saldin: Right, Sally. It's a little hard to know what 'establishment' and 'anti-establishment' even means these days. You know, being anti-establishment, basically, I guess seems to mean that you're with MAGA. But at this point, Trump and MAGA have quite clearly become the establishment in the Republican Party. Trump, after all, was president, and he's about to get the GOP presidential nomination for the third cycle in a row. Well, it's hard to be anti-establishment and Washington outsider when you're president. And for that matter, Rosendale has been a politician now for a long time, a sitting member of Congress and an influential one at that.

For one thing, Holly, as you mentioned, it was him and his crew that ousted their own party's Speaker of the House, who they deemed, I guess, insufficiently anti-establishment and were able to replace McCarthy with one of their own. So it's not exactly like these guys are the scrappy underdogs. You know, these days, it's the Mitch McConnell's of the world who are really on the run and desperately clinging to some rotting shell of what their party used to be. But I guess in another sense, as you noted, Holly, I mean, yes, Rosendale, I suppose, is the anti-establishment candidate in the sense that he's hard right; farther right, one gathers than Sheehy, although even here, at the end of the day it's not altogether clear that there's much meaningful distinction between people like Rosendale on the one hand and Sheehy and his benefactor Steve Daines on the other. From the stolen election to Ukraine and so on and so forth a lot of times these folks end up in the same spot. So this distinction between establishment and anti-establishment on the Republican side these days is a pretty murky thing to try to sort out.

Sally Mauk: Holly, Rosendale has an ad out attacking Anthony Fauci and implying that the Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton had something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is not even remotely true.

Holly Michels: This is an example of Rosendale making some pretty fringe claims that were debunked in strong reporting from Katheryn Houghton with KFF Health News. In this fundraising ad, Rosendale makes the false claim that Dr. Fauci, who was the face of the country's COVID-19 response for so long, somehow brought COVID-19 to Montana and Rocky Mountain Laboratories based in Hamilton. The story explains that Rosendale made the claim to varying degrees over the last year, including in a speech on the House floor and in one interview where he tied the blame for COVID-19 spread to the lab's work.

Rosendale has also backed an amendment in Congress that would ban research on pandemic-related pathogens at the lab and essentially eliminate the salary of one of the lab's top employees. Katheryn's reporting shows that the strain of the virus that was researched at the lab is entirely different from the one that causes COVID-19, however. The story also points out scientists there started their work in 2016, four years before the first COVID-19 case was detected in the U.S. and it ended up giving Rosendale’s claim its most severe 'Pants on Fire' rating for being false. Rosendale's office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Sally Mauk: Rob, with Rosendale running for Senate, there are now several candidates interested in his U.S. House seat, including a familiar name in Montana politics - former Congressman Danny Rehberg.

Rob Saldin: All right, Sally, this one kind of came out of the blue, but Rehberg, should he decide to go for it, he certainly has some advantages, most notably served in the House for over a decade. And of course, that was at a time when we just had that single at-large district. So he was running and winning statewide, and he never had a particularly close election. In fact, he won a bunch of those by margins of like 30 percentage points, this kind of thing. He was the leading Republican in the state for much of that time. Certainly when he was at his peak, his name ID in the state would have been close to 100%. But that was a long time ago.

At this point, Sally, he's been off the scene for over a decade now, and a lot has changed. The Republican Party has been transformed and to my eye, at least, not necessarily in a way that plays well for Rehberg. Just one example of this that I think is pretty illustrative; you know, back when Rehberg was a freshman in the House, he somehow managed to finagle his way onto the Appropriations Committee. This is the committee that basically decides what the federal government is going to spend its money on. Well, traditionally, getting on approps has been a big deal. Those are sought after slots, and Rehberg was good at it. He was a student of the process. He learned how it worked. He took it seriously. He was also, and this was one of the reasons why approps has traditionally been an extremely sought after assignment, he was also in this position to bring back a lot of money to Montana through earmarks and such. And he was really good at that too. Well, the trouble for him is that that kind of thing, the place, again, where he really made his mark as a legislator, that's the kind of thing that Republicans view as bad these days. That's 'swamp-like' behavior. And in fact, the tide had already started to turn on that kind of thing by 2012, when he ran against Tester for the Senate. These were the Tea Party days, and Rehberg couldn't really take credit for the thing that he was most effective at, and in another era that he would have proudly campaigned on.

Well, that whole dynamic has only ratcheted up since. So Rehberg is a man from a different era in some ways. If he's going to meet Republican voters where they are now, he's probably going to have to rebrand a bit.

Sally Mauk: And he will be running against some other fairly well-known Montana politicians, which we will talk about in the future.

Rob Saldin: Absolutely, including a couple who have won statewide offices.

Sally Mauk: Holly, a Democratic PAC has an ad out attacking Senate candidate Tim Sheehy for investing in a Chinese company. Here's the ad.

Ad Announcer: Communist China...cheating us on trade, spying from above. Now, records show millionaire Tim Sheehy invested in a Chinese company caught stealing personal information from Americans: addresses, phone numbers, location data. President Trump banned their app to protect national security, but Tim Sheehy bought their stock to make money for himself. Shady Sheehy cashing in on communist China.

Sally Mauk: 'Shady Sheehy' is a Trumpian sounding nickname, Holly.

Holly Michels: It really is Sally. We've heard a lot from Republicans so far in this Senate race trying to paint Tester as soft on China. This ad from a Democratic-backed PAC is working to flip that script. It references former President Trump issuing an executive order banning the U.S. from having transactions with Tencent, which is a Chinese firm that owns WeChat. WeChat has been reported to monitor citizens and been used to spread propaganda. A judge actually blocked Trump's executive order saying it violated the First Amendment, and Biden later reversed those bans and instead asked the Commerce Department to review potential national security issues with the company. But this ad is really trying to make three points: it's pointing out Sheehy is rich, it's pointing out he wasn't in line with Trump, it's trying to say he's not all that opposed to China, which increasingly people are trying to make it a pretty big issue in this Senate race.

Sally Mauk: Rob, that anti-Sheehy ad isn't the only ad this campaign season that focuses on China. Here's an ad from the Tester campaign.

Senator Jon Tester narrating ad: Let me be clear - China is the greatest threat facing our nation. They've been undercutting American jobs for generations. Their fentanyl is wreaking havoc on Montana's communities. They've even flown spy balloons across our state. So when I found out that Chinese corporations were buying American farmland, I went to work with my Republican colleagues and said, 'Not on my watch.' Whatever it takes, I'll defend Montana and I'll keep our nation safe.

Sally Mauk: And here's a China-focused ad from the Sheehy campaign:

Senate Candidate Tim Sheehy narrating ad: Politicians like Jon Tester talk tough on China. I've actually done something about the threats we face. As a Navy Seal, I led covert operations around the world to defend our American values. Then I built a Montana manufacturing business with zero supply chain dependence on China. Now I'm working to strengthen Montana beef production and stop the Chinese from undercutting our ranchers.

Ad Announcer: Conservative businessman Tim Sheehy will fight for Montana jobs.

Tim Sheehy: I approve this message because we must break our dependence on China and put America first.

Sally Mauk: And, Rob, I'm guessing Montanans are not waking up every morning fretting about China, but more about how they're going to pay their medical bills and their taxes. So what's up with all this fearmongering around China?

Rob Saldin: Maybe so, Sally, but elite figures in politics can also have a significant role to play in terms of what issues we do take seriously. I guess I would also note that there are some legitimate concerns with China. China and Russia are our top global competitors and have been for some time. And with Republicans increasingly cozying up to Putin and Russia. It's not necessarily surprising that China would rise in salience.

But regardless, there are some legitimate reasons to be worried about with China and its intentions. This doesn't strike me as an entirely fake conflict. The ads themselves focus on trade issues, but you could also cite human rights abuses, authoritarianism, Taiwan and so forth. All of these are reasonable areas of concern. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that China should be getting quite as much attention as it does seem to be, at least thus far in the campaign in Montana. We could certainly, probably both think of some other issues that would seem to be important as well, but it does seem to have taken hold, and it's an issue, I think, that actually, for different reasons, works fairly well for both Republicans and Democrats in Montana.

Sally Mauk: Well, we'll see if those other issues surface as the campaign season goes on. It's been a very busy week in Montana politics, Holly and Rob. Thank you and we'll gather again next week.

Campaign Beat is MTPR's weekly political analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune in on-air Saturdays at 9:45 a.m. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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