Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Primary election wrap-up; Candidates roll out new attack ads; We'll be back in the fall!

The primary election had few surprises — but laid the groundwork for some bruising general election races. New ads in the Senate and gubernatorial races come out swinging. Campaign Beat will return in September.

Campaign Beat is MTPR's weekly political analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Troy Downing has won the crowded Eastern District Republican congressional primary. I think the only real surprise is how poorly the equally well-known Republicans in that race — Denny Rehberg and Elsie Arntzen — how poorly they did.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, right, Sally. Downing is going to have to wait several months before he officially gets his congressional lapel pin, but he can be very confident, I think, that he will replace Matt Rosendale in Congress. That district is just so Republican that the Democratic nominee, John Driscoll, doesn't have a realistic path. And yes, Sally, Downing had a pretty easy victory, albeit with only 36% of the total vote. But in a nine-way primary, that's plenty. Downing was always seen as one of the top tier contenders, so it's certainly no shock that he came out on top.

But you're right, if there was a surprise, it was what happened to the other two candidates who had both won statewide and were relatively well known. Elsie Arntzen and Denny Rehberg were far back, particularly Arntzen. She only got 9% and ended up fourth. Rehberg didn't do all that much better, pulling in 17%. And this from a guy who represented the state in that old At-Large Congressional District for over a decade and was his party's nominee for U.S. Senate back in 2012. Well, there was always a bit of a dinosaur quality to Rehberg's comeback bid, and this would seem to confirm that he's just from a different era and an era that, no longer resonates in Donald Trump’s party. And if we needed any further indication of that, just look at Joel Krautter's result. He was the candidate who we talked about a couple times, who ran against the grain as an anti-Trump voice and tried to cobble together something like a Nikki Haley type coalition. Well, that clearly didn't work. He ended up in seventh place with 3%. There's just no appetite for that in today's GOP.

One final thing that strikes me here, Sally, is that looking forward, Downing is likely to be a significant change from Rosendale. Rosendale has been a fringe figure in American politics. He was kind of MAGA before there was MAGA. In many respects, he's a smart and talented guy, but he's extremely ideological, extremely combative, to the point that he made a lot of enemies among his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill. I feel pretty confident in saying that there aren't going to be a lot of tears shed in Washington's elite GOP circles when he packs his bags and leaves office. Troy Downing, by contrast, has a different reputation. I mean, no doubt about it, he's a conservative, but he hasn't spent decades marinating in the ideological fever swamps. He has a reputation as a substantive guy who's interested in policy and so forth. And I suspect that he'll be much more of a team player on Capitol Hill than we've seen in that office.

Holly Michels: I interviewed Downing on election night, after they called the race for him, and asked him if he sort of saw himself being similar to Rosendale, or not, in Congress. And he said, while he thought that they have some of the same issues they share, thinking what's most important, he really said he disagreed with how Rosendale went about doing the job and he would not operate similar to Rosendale, that he felt more of a need to be a team player and work to get Republican goals across the finish line. So, he was pretty clear he's not going to look like Rosendale.

Sally Mauk: We should point out that former President Trump endorsed Downing at the last minute, right before the election, and also point out that Downing has in the past been critical of Trump but is supposedly on board with Trump now.

Rob Saldin: On that endorsement, Sally, I think an interesting question is the degree to which Downing was seeking that endorsement or the degree to which Trump had access to some polling, perhaps, that indicated that Downing was going to win and wanted to be in a position to take credit for that victory.

Sally Mauk: Well, Holly, the results of the Republican and Democratic primaries in the Senate race are also no surprise. Incumbent Jon Tester will face newcomer Tim Sheehy, and both have to feel good about how they did in their respective primaries.

Holly Michels: I think so, Sally. Watching that race on election night, I think the only reason the Associated Press didn't call it immediately after polls closed is it took a couple minutes to get results. But once we had that first batch of reporting, Tester and Sheehy had enough margin that even with just a handful of counties in, AP called it for them. Sheehy pulled down 74% of the vote. We saw a former PSC chair, Brad Johnson get 19%. Charles Walking Child got the rest of the field in that Republican primary. Tester got 97% of the vote. His challenger, Michael Hummert, got 3%.

So that's a really strong showing for Tester. That came even in the face of some protests he's been met with at events around the state, from pro-Palestine groups urging people to withhold their vote for Tester as a sign of protest. So, I think we're seeing both men here rightfully touting their results as we move into the general election. I think anyone who's been watching this election would say this race has been basically run like a general election since we learned that Matt Rosendale wasn't going to make it as messy of a Republican primary as we expected. Just as a raw count, Sheehy got about 34,800 more votes than Tester, even with Brad Johnson taking some of that Republican support. But I went back and looked at when Tester ran against Denny Rehberg in 2012. And that year Rehberg also outperformed Tester in the primary. He got 17,000 more votes than Tester, but Tester ended up winning the general by about 18,000 votes. And in that race, Rehberg also got about three quarters of voters in the primary and Tester was unchallenged. So, it's a little bit more similar to look at compared to that Four-Way Republican primary we had back in 2018. And of course, you know, turnout is going to be a lot higher in the general election. It's an entirely different animal, so there's not a ton we can read into there. But I think we are seeing campaigns now really doing a deep dive into these primary results to see what they can learn and how they can adapt game plans looking to the general election.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Sheehy has a new ad out attacking Tester. And here is that ad.

Ad Announcer: It's lawfare. A state sponsored political persecution led by Joe Biden and the radical left. They want to throw Trump in jail, trying to rob Americans of their choice in the election. And Jon Tester is standing right by their side. Tester's even advocated for violence against President Trump: 'I think you need to go back and then punch him in the face.' And Tester voted to impeach President Trump twice. Jon Tester supported Joe Biden's witch-hunt every step of the way.

Sally Mauk: Rob, is Tester running against Tim Sheehy or Donald Trump?

Rob Saldin: , I think Sheehy would like to raise the prominence of Donald Trump as much as he can. And I think that's a good approach for him. For one thing, Sally, Tester is well known and he's relatively well-liked. He's been around longer than anyone in Montana politics. He's got a compelling personal story. He's been an effective legislator, and he fits the state really well. So, it's going to be hard, I think, to de-legitimize Tester on a personal level.

Second, for as good a candidate as Sheehy is on paper. His rollout has been a little shaky. On paper, he does look like the kind of perfect Montana Republican, right? One part wealthy Bozeman entrepreneur in the mold of Gianforte and Daines, one part Navy SEAL like Zinke. Plus, he's got the central casting looks. But out of the gate, it's been a little uneven for him, just in the way he carries himself. He doesn't seem to really like engaging with people, and he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself out there on the campaign trail. Maybe some of that is just being a novice politician, but still, that's not ideal. And then on top of that, you've got a lot of discrepancies that have turned up, most notably, but certainly not exclusively, that very bizarre gunshot mystery. So, there are some real liabilities there with Sheehy as a candidate. And those are the kinds of things that ten years ago, I think would have sunk him against someone like Tester.

But the thing is, Sally, in 2024, he's still got a very clear path to victory. But again, it's not going to be by convincing everyone that Tester is a bad person, and I don't think it's going to be by making everyone fall in love with Sheehy. Rather, it's what we see in this ad. You nationalize the race; you depersonalize the race. You make it a choice between the radical, far left Democratic Party on the one hand, and the Republican Party and its persecuted leader on the other. And remember, Sheehy has what really should be a pretty easy task; he doesn't need to convince a bunch of Democrats to flip over. All he needs is to have the people who cast a vote for Trump to also fill in the Sheehy bubble. Actually, not even that. He can lose, probably, you know, some 30,000 Trump voters and still win. So given all that, you know, yes, I think he wants to raise the salience of Trump in this Senate election. That's the obvious play. And I think we'll be seeing a lot of it in the next five months, Sally.

Sally Mauk: Well, this is a national strategy to nationalize a lot of these races, not just the race in Montana.

Rob Saldin: Absolutely. It is the playbook in our nationalized political environment.

Sally Mauk: In the gubernatorial race, Holly, both incumbent Greg Gianforte and newcomer Ryan Busse easily won their primaries, though neither one got more than 75% of the vote.

Holly Michels: Yeah, we saw Gianforte right at that 75% threshold to Tanner Smith, his challenger from the right, getting 25% of the vote, which is about what people I talked to before election night were expecting in that race. Smith did put more than $160,000 of his own money into that race. He ran a really active campaign. He traveled the state talking to any group that would have him. He put up lots of signs, billboards. He's running ads wherever he could get them on radio and online. Gianforte pretty much didn't do a primary campaign. He's been pretty low key so far, though we are now seeing groups like the Republican Governors Association coming out swinging against Busse, who's the Democrat he'll be facing in the general.

Busse got 71% of the vote, compared to 29% for Jim Hunt. Busse's campaign sent out a statement after that race was called, that was more focused on bashing Gianforte than touting Busse's performance. I do think it's interesting that Hunt, who didn't report raising or spending any money to support his campaign and really didn't have a visible campaign presence, still pulled in that much of the vote. Busse's trying to make the point after this election that incumbent Democratic governors Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock, when they were running for reelection, both got about 91% of the vote in contested primaries. Though it's important to point out that none of them had challengers like Smith was for Gianforte - running an active campaign, spending a lot of money trying to get elected. For Busse, it felt like the gloves were already off with Gianforte. Now it feels like we're kind of moving into the brass knuckle phase of this campaign as we get toward the general election. We do see Gianforte focusing more on his record and trying to sell voters on a positive picture of the state now that he's run it for the last 4 years. So, they ran a pretty interesting race going through to November.

Sally Mauk: Democrat Ryan Busse wasted no time getting his first TV ad out. And here's that ad.

Busse narrating: When rich out-of-staters tried to sell off this land, we shot it down. Now they're coming for all of Montana, selling it off for parts. We get Greg Gianforte's high property tax rates while he sells Montana off to the wealthy. You know, the only thing I ever sold - guns. 3 million of them. I'm a ranch kid who built a gun company. I've hunted and fished every part of Montana. This place, our Montana — way too special to let him take it. I'm Ryan Busse. I'm running for governor to get your Montana back.

Sally Mauk: He packs a lot into this 30 second ad, Rob.

Rob Saldin: Yeah. This is his first traditional TV spot. So, it is Busse's attempt to, in many ways introduce himself to Montana voters. You know, obviously committed Democrats and high information voters will already be familiar with him. But plenty of general election voters won't. We do see him trying to touch a lot of bases here, right? We get some of his bio, notably his professional background in the gun industry. We get the the threat to the Montana way of life from rich out-of-staters. We get the aggressive hits on Gianforte over property taxes, among other things. It's a lot of ground to cover in 30 seconds. But, you know, it strikes me as reasonably effective for what it is. It's an attempt to extend the conversation beyond the somewhat insular primary electorate, and to extend his reach to the general election audience that may have missed a lot of what people like us have been obsessively following for months now. This is Busse laying the groundwork for the themes that he wants to be at the center of this campaign, and the themes that he'll be returning to and hammering away at through the summer and fall.

Sally Mauk: It's on to the general election in November, and as Holly said earlier, the brass knuckles will start to come out for sure. And this is our last Campaign Beat till next fall. Rob and Holly, I hope you have a great summer and I'll see you in September.

Campaign Beat is MTPR's weekly political analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspaper's State News 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.

Stay Connected
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.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information