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Rosendale is back and wearing the team jersey. Could Daines become the Senate Republican Leader?

Rosendale is in, but will that push others out of the race for his House seat? A new Democrat has entered that House race. Steve Daines is being courted to become the next leader of Senate Republicans.

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: Rob, Matt Rosendale finally ended the suspense this week and announced he will run for reelection. But the question remains - why did it take so long?

Rob Saldin Yeah, well, that's certainly one of the lingering questions in all of this, Sally. It doesn't make sense. It was harmful to Rosendale to wait in that his indecision helped fuel the rumors that have been circulating for three weeks, and that finally wound up in print early this week. It also hurt Rosendale in the sense that it made his primary more challenging. You know, if he'd have announced right away when he dropped the Senate bid, some of the other Republicans who jumped into the race might have backed off. And, most notably, Denny Rehberg probably wouldn't have come in from left field. So, Rosendale's dithering made his primary more difficult and complicated. And, of course, it was also rather inconsiderate to all those other Republican House candidates who've been running for months on the understanding that Rosendale was leaving the House. So, he has created something of a mess, both for himself and for a number of the other prominent Republicans in the state.

Sally Mauk: Rosendale's announcement, Rob, came after former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp shared this rumor on a podcast:

Heidi Heitkamp Just a little rumor. I think their caucus may lose a member in the next couple days.

Heitkamp co-host: Wow. You heard it here first.

Heidi Heitkamp Might be the congressman from Montana. Just to gossip a little bit: there's a reason why Rosendale backed out of that Senate race. The rumor is that he impregnated a 20-year-old staff person.

Sally Mauk: And Rob, Rosendale promptly threatened to sue Heitkamp for defamation and his wife also publicly denounced this allegation.

Rob Saldin: Yeah. That's right. I mean, Heitkamp in that clip, you know, she's repeating what everyone has been hearing and obsessing over for some weeks now. And, you know, Sally, one of the reasons this got so much traction - these rumors - is because it made an otherwise inexplicable situation make sense. If something like the rumor Heitkamp passed on was, in fact true, it would help explain Rosendale's abrupt 180 on the Senate campaign that he desperately wanted and had been planning for years. It would help explain his rather mystifying account of how he came to the decision to drop that campaign, and it would help explain his indecision on running for reelection to the House and leaving a bunch of his fellow Republicans twisting in the wind. But you know, Sally, when Heitkamp said that on Monday, it seemed like, you know, gosh, maybe the dam's breaking here. We're going to find out what really happened. But just a few days later, as you note, Rosendale's wife comes out with a statement, and it's now starting to look like we may never have any satisfactory answers to all the questions about the rumors themselves and about Rosendale's behavior over the last few weeks.

Sally Mauk: We do want to make it clear Rosendale has strongly denied the rumor, and his supporters, as well, have done that. So, there's no evidence of what Heitkamp has alleged. 

Rob Saldin: Yeah, and I think at this point, if Rosendale's wife isn't going to go on the record, if a staffer isn't going to go on the record, there's no one to corroborate any of this. Which also leads to the question of if it's not true, who started this rumor and for what purpose? 

Sally Mauk: Right. Holly, with Rosendale officially in the race for the House seat, it remains to be seen how many of the eight other Republican candidates will stay in the running, like state school Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. And here's part of an online ad she has.

Announcer: Elsie stood up to the COVID Crazies, against lockdowns, for parents and for Montana. Now Elsie is ready to stand up to D.C.

Sally Mauk: And Holly, parental rights is one of Elsie Arntzen's big issues.

 Holly Michels: Yeah, Sally. That has been such a part of Arntzen's time in office, supporting this broad umbrella of everything that falls under parental rights. It's looked like support for charter schools (we just saw the first round of those approved in Montana), support for changing notifications around how sexual education is taught in classrooms, really elevating a lot of these so-called 'culture war' topics around education. She's also highlighting things she did, like oppose mask mandates during the peak of the COVID pandemic, which is something a Republican primary voter is going to want to hear about. You know, Arntzen's in a spot now, like the other candidates in this primary where they're working to stand out from a really crowded field and also trying to separate themselves from Rosendale now that the incumbent is running. Some of these candidates like Troy Downing; they were already out campaigning before Rosendale made any moves. Others, like Arntzen - it was off to the races once Rosendale said he was in that Senate race. But we have heard from pretty much everyone in that field saying that they're, at this point, still running, even with Rosendale now in the race. We've got Denny Rehberg, former congressman from Montana. He's working to say, you know, look, I'm also kind of an incumbent in this race. I've had this job before. I know how it works. We've got former legislators like Joel Krautter running. They're going to have to have a lot harder battle with name recognition. Now we'll see what they're going to do to make themselves stand out in a crowded field. That will be interesting to watch. But a lot of these candidates, they've hired staff, they're soliciting donations, they're attending Republican events around the state. So, they already took off and went full-in once Rosendale was in that Senate race. I think March 11th is the day we'll be watching - that's the filing deadline. So, if a candidate hasn't filed yet, that's their last chance to do so. If they have filed but decide they're not running, that's when they would need to file by to get their name taken off the ballot. Of course, someone could in their campaign after that point, put their name would still appear on that really crowded at this point primary ballot in June. To that point, if you've got eight people in a primary, someone in theory could need just under 13% of the vote to win, which would be pretty interesting to see.

Sally Mauk: Holly, there are also three Democrats running for that House seat, including a new candidate from Broadus.

Holly Michels: We've got a new Democrat in the race. This is Steve Held. He's actually the second parent of a Montana kid who was part of the landmark climate trial this summer to run for office this cycle. The other one is Ryan Busse. He's running as a Democrat for Governor. Held's daughter, Rikki, was actually the named plaintiff in that climate case. So, Held is a rancher from Broadus - that's in southeastern Montana. In a press release, he said he's running for this office to clean up corruption, pass a farm bill that works for family farmers in Montana, not just big businesses, and corporations. He also took swings at both Rosendale and Rehberg, in that release. He called Rosendale a 'self-serving carpetbagger'. He said Rehberg is a career politician and lobbyist. Held also said he would want to work to solve the immigration crisis, he said he'd want to keep politicians out of doctors’ offices, which is another way of saying he supports access to abortion. He also said he wanted to address climate change and said he would be a strong advocate for the state's tribal nations. He also said he's 63-years-old and has never in that time registered with a political party before. Though it is worth pointing out that in Montana we don't do that when we vote. Held joins what's now a three-way primary on the Democratic side. That's got Kevin Hamm, a Helena resident who runs Montana Pride, and Ming Cabrera, a Billings resident who's retired from the pharmaceutical industry.

Sally Mauk: And, of course, a Democrat winning that seat would be a long shot. Rob, Tim Sheehy officially filed this week for the Senate seat now held by Jon Tester. And Rosendale, who just a wee bit ago had nothing good to say about Sheehy, has now endorsed him.

Rob Saldin: Right. Rosendale was very critical of Sheehy and not just Sheehy, but his most prominent backers; Steve Daines and Mitch McConnell. But you're right, Sally - now Rosendale is back wearing his team jersey. That's not necessarily unusual in a contested primary. You know, you have some tough rhetoric, but then everyone tries to make up for the general election. I do suspect some bad blood will remain here just because the rhetoric was so heated. But at least for the purposes of public presentation, it looks like everyone is, going to try to be all smiles and on their best behavior moving forward.

Sally Mauk: Holly, Sheehy was picked by Senator Steve Daines to run. Daines was profiled in the Washington Post this week for his efforts to elect enough Republicans to gain control of the Senate. Now we learned Donald Trump wants Daines to replace Mitch McConnell as the leader of Senate Republicans when McConnell steps down in November.

Holly Michels: Daines didn't say outright after this reporting that he would run. He thanked Trump for his support, but a person who spoke anonymously to Politico said right now, Daines’ focus is more on trying to win back the Senate majority, saying the Republicans would need a majority in the Senate to have a majority leader. Trump's endorsement, given Trump's power over the party and the likelihood he's a party nominee for president - that has a lot of weight here, but as Politico pointed out, the process to select a leader is done through secret balloting. So, if nobody knows how you're voting, that might give people a little more freedom to break ranks from who Trump is suggesting they vote for.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Daines is the dark horse to replace McConnell. There are other senators who have more seniority and more connections than him, but if he delivers control of the Senate to his party, he might be rewarded with the leadership.

Rob Saldin: Yeah. Maybe so, Sally. There's been a lot of speculation for years, really, about who's going to replace McConnell as leader, because everyone has known that his time is limited in that slot. But all of that speculation has focused on one of the 'Three Johns': John Thune, John Barrasso and John Cornyn. And yet Daines being in the mix, it does make some sense, right? We've talked about the tight relationship between Daines and Trump. And of course, Trump is a key figure in the Republican Party. So, if he says he wants Daines, that's significant. Daines is also, I think, already been pretty widely seen as being effective in his current role as point man for the GOP Senate elections this cycle. And Daines has also developed something of a connection with the base at the national level. You know, he goes on Fox regularly and so forth. The other obvious candidates for this slot don't necessarily do as much of that. Now, this won't be decided until after the election. So, it is going to matter a great deal whether Trump wins and is headed back to the White House, whether the Senate elections actually turn out as favorable for Republicans as it looks like they could.

Sally Mauk: The last time Montana had a Senate majority leader, it was Mike Mansfield. There would be very big shoes to fill.

Rob Saldin: And, Sally, you know, one thing worth noting about McConnell stepping down is that Mansfield will remain the longest serving majority leader in the Senate, right? McConnell eclipsed him as the longest serving leader, but not majority leader.

Sally Mauk: Holly and Rob, it's been another interesting we can we will talk again next week. Thank you.

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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