Going into Tuesday’s primary, Montanans already knew the race for the U.S. Senate seat this year would be a political brawl.
Now voters knows the contestants. Incumbent Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, will face state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who emerged the winner from the Republican primary field of four.
"Maryland Matt," "Two-Faced Tester.'' There’s no shortage of verbiage already being thrown around in the Battle of the flat-tops just days into the race. And if the rhetoric hasn’t reached Montanans' ears yet … just wait.
At the back table of a cafe in Townsend on a rainy Thursday afternoon, a group of men drinking coffee said they were already over a political season that’s just getting started.
“I’m sick of the damn phone calls,” said Paul Bray, talking about people doing political surveys who’ve rung his phone relentlessly this spring. Bray lives in town and is retired from a job as a pharmaceutical salesman.
The other men at the table, who all identified themselves as conservatives, nodded and then ticked off the other ways political advertising had assaulted their mailboxes, televisions and phones.
“It pisses me off,” said Curtis Spatzierats, a semi-retired farmer and rancher who also does the odd job here and there. “The last one, I read them the riot act.”
Millions were put into the Republican Senate primary to reach voters like Bray and Spatzierats, whether they liked it or not. Rosendale, who took 34 percent of the primary vote, beat out the next closest candidate, former Billings judge Russ Fagg, by a little more than 8,300 votes.
The last campaign reports before the election show the Republican primary candidates spent about $3 million trying to get elected. Outside groups, like out-of-state super political action committees, spent another $3 million-plus, almost all supporting Rosendale, sometimes by attacking Fagg.
If that sounds like a lot of money, it’s almost nothing compared to what’s expected in the general election.
In testimony in a court case trying to get the Montana Green Party removed from the ballot, a Democratic official estimated that combined spending in the Senate race here could reach $100 million from all directions and sides.
And, yes, the Senate race will also have a Green Party candidate. In that party’s primary Tuesday, longtime Green Party member Steve Kelly beat out Timothy Adams, who has previously been on the state GOP's payroll, with 955 votes to 611.
The massive amount of money in politics is one of the things that’s disillusioned voters like Spatzierats.
“It’s a rich man’s game,” Sptatzierats said. “A person that’s not rich can’t run for office.”
The $3 million in PAC money paid for some of the attacks against Rosendale in the primary, including a campaign from Principles First, an unregistered PAC. Other attacks came from Fagg, who was the most vocal candidate taking jabs at the state auditor.
Just two days after the primary, American Bridge, a PAC that aims to hold Republicans “accountable," was using terms from Fagg’s digs — “carpetbagger,” “fake rancher” and “flip-flopper” — in anti-Rosendale ads.
That line of attack is being recycled because the message was fairly, if not ultimately, effective, said Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College.
“Although Fagg wasn’t able to defeat Rosendale, he was able to come close by trying to exploit some of Rosendale’s vulnerabilities,” Johnson said. “He was really trying to paint him as an outsider, that he came from outside of Montana and that he was largely financed by groups from outside Montana.”
Rosendale has a lot of work to do, Johnson said.
That was apparent in talking to voters like Bray and Spatzierats, who said while they are conservatives and will vote for the Republican candidate over Tester, they weren’t thrilled with the primary field.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Bray said of the outcome Tuesday. He has concerns about what happens if Rosendale wins the Senate seat and vacates the auditor post.
“He gets one job and then jumps into another one,” Bray said.
Rosendale on Friday said he’s pursued political posts when he’s been asked to, saying he got into politics because he was asked to run for the state Legislature by people from Glendive. After moving there, he became involved in local agriculture and church groups, and from there it was a natural progression, he said.
“If folks encourage me to take on another task, whether that’s an office or just an issue that my office can address, I have always said that I’m willing to serve wherever I can be the most effective," Rosendale said.
Bray brought up another ding that’s been made against Rosendale, who owns a ranch in Glendive and said in 2017 he leases property to his neighbors.
“He’s not a rancher. He may own a ranch but he’s not a rancher,” Bray said.
Johnson, the political science professor, said that come November, agricultural bona fides and home states won't matter much to voters who strongly support one party or the other. But those issues could influence the choices of independent voters, whose choices are expected to determine the ultimate winner.
“Voters are very diverse with what they care about and don’t care about,” Johnson said. “I do think that among swing voters, some of those more symbolic issues about identity might play stronger with them than those other voters who are more committed to a particular issue.”
Rosendale has yet to prove himself, the table of coffee drinkers said, but he has their support because he’s the Republican candidate and they want someone who will support Trump. Bray said he’s frustrated that the president has been held up by Congress on several efforts, most notably repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
“The senators and representatives work together to oppose Trump because they don’t want to be drained,” Bray said, referencing the president’s promise to get rid of career politicians, lobbyists and corporate influence in Washington, D.C.
While some might see Tester as part of that obstruction, the Democratic senator's campaign has been emphasizing the 15 Tester bills signed by Trump and pointing to ways Tester has bucked the national party, including his recent banking bill that rolled back some of the regulations enacted after the economic crisis of 2008.
“The reason Jon wrote that bill is he heard from Montana’s banks and credit unions that they were being stifled by those over-burdensome regulations,” said Chris Meagher, communications director for Montanans for Tester.
The ability to talk to Montanans about their issues is why one Billings resident said she’ll vote for Tester in November.
Marni Edmiston met Tester when he first ran for the Senate. She showed up a bit late to a campaign event, sat down at a table and started talking to a husband and wife about spring rain and the difficulty of getting plants in the ground at the right time when you’re a dryland farmer.
“I sat down at a big plastic table in a room and ended up having the nicest visit with these two people who turned out to be Jon and Sharla (Tester),” Edmiston said. “We just had a nice visit about Montana and life and I just thought, ‘Wow, I really like these people.’ Our families are also up on the Hi-Line so we had that in common, too.”
Edmiston said she feels like Tester is part of the solution to the gridlock in D.C.
“Dogma is not the safest place to hide,” Edmiston said. “If you want to participate in democracy you have to be informed, and to be informed you actually have to do the hard work of critically thinking and listening. If your ego gets in the way of what’s maybe best, then that doesn’t help anybody.”
But already Rosendale is attacking Tester for being "out of touch."
In his victory speech, Rosendale told a crowd of supporters that Tester had purchased a home in Washington, D.C., which drew jeers from the crowd.
That night and the next day, Rosendale said he got calls of support from all of his primary opponents to congratulate him and offer their support. “The Republican Party has come together and unified and we are ready to take on Jon Tester,” Rosendale said.
That support, especially from Fagg, could be critical for Rosendale, Johnson said. During the primary Fagg was backed by well-known Republicans such as Denny Rehberg, Rick Hill and Marc Racicot, the last Montana Republican that Bray said he was truly excited about.
Tester has won both his previous Senate races while getting less than 50 percent of the vote. That means he’s always had to campaign hard, Johnson said.
“Tester has proven to be very adept at securing a fairly wide range of support in Montana,” Johnson said. “It’ll be hard for any Republican. We’ll see if Rosendale can close that gap. … I think he’s making strides, but it’s going to be a challenge.”
That’s not an assessment with which Bray would disagree.
“I’m not sure Rosendale is the best candidate for the position, but I don’t think the others were as good,” Bray said. “I’m not sure he’s the best candidate to beat Jon. He’s got one hell of a fight ahead of him. At this point I think it’s 60/40 for Tester.”