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Rosendale drops out – again! Party bosses, pet candidates and poll numbers

Matt Rosendale's roller coaster campaign decisions have everyone — including the Campaign Beat team — scratching their heads. Meanwhile, the Senate race is getting tighter.

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, Congressman Matt Rosendale dropped another bombshell this week, saying he has once again changed his mind and will not be running for reelection to his House seat.

Holly Michels: Yeah, in that post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Rosendale said he's had death threats made against him that resulted in law enforcement having to check on his adult childrens' safety. He also said that what he called false and defamatory rumors against him, and his family have taken a serious toll on him and his family. Those rumors first swirled around online for days after he abruptly dropped out of the Senate race but hadn't yet filed for reelection to his House seat, as people were speculating about what he would do. Eventually, former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp on a podcast made the claim that Rosendale had impregnated a 20-year-old staffer. Rosendale, as well as his wife, have aggressively denied that claim and threatened Heitkamp, a Democrat, with legal action. And to be very clear, there is no proof at this point to any of the rumors. Rosendale did end up filing for that eastern House race. But those rumors, Rosendale wrote in a statement, caused a serious disruption to the election. He said those current attacks have also made it impossible for him to focus on his work to serve his constituents. So that's why he's withdrawing from the race and not seeking any office this year. That means Rosendale is effectively done at the start of 2025, when the next Congress is sworn in.

Sally Mauk: In an interview with Jackie Coffin of Yellowstone Public Radio, Rosendale elaborated on why he decided not to run for reelection.

Matt Rosendale: Between that threat coming in, the gossip and rumors coming in, the frustration at not even being able to hold the line on any of the things that we've been working on here in the House of Representatives when we are in the majority. It just becomes extremely frustrating. And so, you start looking at where can you be productive? Are you getting things done for the voters? And when I see that I'm not, what I say is I'm tired. My tank is empty. I'm out of gas and it's time for me to come home.

Sally Mauk: So, his 'tank is empty', Holly, is what he says.

Holly Michels: Yeah. In that release too, Rosendale talked about what he said was immense pressure from those in power to keep the status quo in D.C., and he said that a limited few, like him, who are willing to try and force what he called 'true reforms', are subject to what he called 'severe retribution'. Rosendale, like we've talked on this show for years now, is firmly in the far-right wing of the House. He found himself instrumental, along with a very small group of Republicans, in ousting former Speaker Kevin McCarthy last year. He also played a major role in why the process to elect McCarthy went to 15 rounds of voting. So, this is kind of culminating a pretty turbulent few weeks for Rosendale and also means that that eastern House race he was in is going to be pretty interesting without him in it now.

Sally Mauk: Rob, 'turbulent' is probably an understatement. I mean, Congressman Rosendale has had a seesaw of decision making in the last month, and it's not the behavior of someone who seems in control of his political life.

Rob Saldin: No, it doesn't, Sally. It's certainly been a wild month. What a crazy back and forth, on again, off again saga. It's worth maybe just recapping exactly what's going on here, because it gets confusing. For years, though, it had been clear that Rosendale wanted to take another run at the Senate. Even when the party leaders lined up behind Sheehy in recent months, Rosendale ultimately appeared undeterred — full speed ahead. It took him a while to announce his candidacy, though there might have been some strategic elements behind that. But he was guns blazing. But then, right after announcing his Senate bid, he promptly does a 180 and drops it, ostensibly because Trump endorsed Sheehy. But that was always strange, because Rosendale knew that endorsement was coming, or at the very least, that it was a very strong possibility. And then in dropping the Senate bid, he doesn't address the House issue. So that's left lingering. And in that vacuum, we get a blast from the past with Denny Rehberg announcing his candidacy. Then we had the Heitkamp podcast that you mentioned, Holly — you know, saying out loud what all of us have been hearing, but without any evidence to back it up. Then, Rosendale, after a seemingly long and unnecessary period of dithering, he announces that actually he is going to run for reelection to the House. And now, nearly as abruptly as he dropped his Senate bid, he's dropped his reelection campaign. And from the statement that we've seen and the interview that you just played a clip from, Sally, the reasons for it are kind of all over the map. It sounds over determined. I've never seen anything quite like it.

Sally Mauk: Well, that makes, I think, three of us who've not seen anything like this. And Rob, the salacious rumors that you and Holly referred to about his personal life. Those died down when he decided to run for reelection. But now they're predictably resurfacing with this latest 180.

Rob Saldin: It's such an unusual situation, Sally. It just can't help but spur speculation. And so, yeah, I think we're in for another round of that. And in fact, even here in what would at least appear to be the final chapter for Matt Rosendale's political career, his statement, which strikes me as rushed and not very well crafted — perhaps done in haste — it raises its own new set of questions. You know, for one thing, he says that after he dropped the Senate bid, he was encouraged to run for reelection to the House by many people, including some of the other Republicans who had announced their own campaigns for his House seat. Well, that's curious, because none of those other candidates dropped their campaigns after Rosendale said he would, in fact, be seeking reelection. Why did they all stay in, especially if some of them were encouraging Rosendale to run for reelection? That doesn't quite make sense. Another slightly odd part of this statement from Rosendale is that he says he receives a death threat, which of course, is terrible. But it's unfortunately not particularly unusual for members of Congress. But it is also unclear ... you know, Holly, you mentioned his grown children and that they were perhaps in danger. It's not entirely clear, but it's not obvious why that would be the case if the threat was, as Rosendale says in that statement, directed at him personally. I also wonder why he would receive a death threat after dropping his Senate bid. The timing on that is curious.

Sally Mauk: Well, there are so many questions to be answered, but one thing's for sure, Holly — his exit does open up that eastern district House race to all the other candidates who have so far announced.

Holly Michels: It does, and we're seeing those candidates just shortly after this news broke capitalize on that. Troy Downing, the state auditor, his campaign put out a release saying that he has made his bid official by filing the paperwork right after Rosendale dropped out. Downing was in a similar position to Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who last year had said they'd explore a run if Rosendale didn't. Artnzen filed to run after Rosendale entered the Senate race and said she would stay in even when he was back in the House race briefly. We've also seen former Congressman Denny Rehberg say he's running. He also put out a statement after Rosendale said he was quitting the race. Now, with Rosendale's departure, there's by my count, eight candidates who said they'll run in that eastern House primary. At this point, six of them have filed to get their name on the ballot with the Secretary of State. Notably, Rehberg isn't one of those yet and the deadline for him to do that is rapidly approaching — that’s March 11th. After this Rosendale news, we also saw the Arntzen campaign pretty quickly pointing out that she's leading on the money side of the race from that exploratory committee she's had since last year. Before Rosendale dropped out, Arntzen's camp was actually sending out a press release telling people that he had said she was maybe quitting the race since he was running as an incumbent. The campaign was pretty aggressively saying that was a blatant lie. This could be a pretty interesting primary. If you got six people running, a person would need just over 16% of the vote to win. If you've got five candidates, you need just over 20%, which can make things pretty darn interesting.

Sally Mauk: Rob, the Rosendale saga, as you described it, it exposes the growing rift in the Montana Republican Party between hard-line conservatives and party establishment figures like Steve Daines. There are lingering hard feelings over Daines and others backing of Tim Sheehy over Rosendale in the Senate race, as we've mentioned many times. Former state legislator and perennial candidate, Al Olszewski, had this warning in a recent video that was released before Rosendale's latest announcement.

Al Olszewski: If our GOP party bosses wants the rest of the Montana Republicans to get in line and unify for the general election, then first of all, stay out of our primary election process. Quit interfering. And number two — please, stop picking winners and losers before our primary election process is finished. Look, here's my call to action; respectfully decline and oppose our party bosses and our rulers who are continuing to shove down our throats their demands and their pet candidates.

Sally Mauk: Rob, will this Republican in-fighting benefit Democrats, or is it just a family squabble?

Rob Saldin: Well, it sure could benefit Democrats, Sally. You know, this fissure in the GOP isn't exactly new, although it does seem to really be on steroids at this point. Sally and Holly, we've talked for years, both in the context of campaigns, but also during the legislative sessions about this split within the Republican Party. And of course, inflaming these tensions is precisely what Daines and McConnell and, of course, Sheehy were hoping to avoid. And to a degree, they got their wish. Rosendale backed down, leaving Sheehy the nomination. So, they avoided the kind of hot shooting war that we would have seen in a real contested primary. But it was far from a total success because there was something of a cold war going on in the party for many months, in what everyone anticipated was going to be a contested primary. So, this meant that Sheehy had to spend money earlier than he might have ideally wanted to. He had to take positions that might cause him some problems in the general election. And now you have even a bigger mess. When Rosendale dropped his Senate bid, there was clearly some bitterness over what Doctor Al and others perceived to be the heavy-handed bullying tactics of the party bosses. And I've got to think, Sally, that that's only going to be ramped up here with Rosendale's latest announcement that he's dropping his house reelect as well. Some of these Republicans are going to blame Daines and the others for not only meddling in the Senate primary, but now for ruining their guy's career.

Sally Mauk: Lastly Holly, there's a new poll by Emerson College that shows Jon Tester is leading Tim Sheehy in the Senate race, but only by two points.

Holly Michels: Yeah, this poll has Tester up over Sheehy 44% to 42%. That's a shift from the last time they polled in October, which put Tester at 39%. Sheehy hit 35% and had 21% undecided. It is important to note this poll has a margin of error of 3%. So, this race could be a tie. This poll was conducted after Rosendale left the Senate race, and the sample included a thousand registered voters, 40% of whom were Republicans. Almost 26% of respondents were Democrats, and nearly a third were independents. Of those independent voters, Tester led by ten points, 44% to 34%. And those voters, like we've seen in Tester's past races, will play a critical role in the election this fall. He needs to capture a significant amount of them if he wants to win, as well as some Republican support, just given how many Republicans there are in Montana compared to Democrats. After this poll came out, both Tester and Sheehy's campaigns found encouragement in it. Tester's camp said that, you know, this shows he's got support from those independents and some Republican voters. And Sheehy's campaign is saying the polls show they gained some traction, and that Montanans are interested in a political outsider.

Sally Mauk: Well, Holly and Rob, this election year gets ever more curious. Thank you. And I'll talk to you 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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