HELENA – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbent Democratic senators in the nation for 2018 – but Republicans are still a long way from picking their challenger.
With less than nine months until the GOP primary election next June, no consensus front-runner has emerged for the nomination – although four candidates, and one likely candidate, have fired up their organizations and hit the road to meet with Montana voters.
“We’re early in the game,” says state Sen. Al Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon from Kalispell who became the first official Republican candidate in the race in April. “I would say that we’re probably in the second or third inning. And what we’re seeing is people jockeying for position.”
Others who’ve joined the race include state Auditor Matt Rosendale and business owners Troy Downing of Big Sky and Ron Murray of Belgrade.
State District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings has formed an exploratory committee, but looks and sounds like a candidate as he travels the state and tells voters and business groups why he’d be the best person to defeat Tester next year.
Fagg plans to step down from his judge post Oct. 13, and announce then whether he’s in.
Rosendale could be considered the front-runner, because of his status as a statewide office-holder. He’s also been endorsed by at least two conservative national groups.
Rosendale told MTN News earlier this summer that he stands out because of his track record of tackling tough issues, both as a state senator and state auditor, to which he was elected last year.
The auditor is the state’s insurance commissioner, and Rosendale has advocated for dismantling “Obamacare” and replacing it with state-based health care solutions.
“People have put me into office because they feel that I’m effective,” he says. “I don’t procrastinate, I don’t kick the can down the road. We make a decision based on good information and then we move forward.”
The candidates often take their shots at Tester, labeling him a liberal cloaked in moderate clothing. But they’re also starting to throw some elbows at each other.
Murray, who owns a dog kennel and two other businesses, notes that Rosendale just won the auditor’s post and now is gunning for U.S. Senate.
“He moved to Montana in 2002; he’s been running for office basically since he got here,” says Murray. “How many positions do you want to run for?
“Nobody wants to bring (that) out into the open. Well, I’m not afraid to bring it out into the open.”
Murray, 45, says while he’s known by few people and doesn’t have a lot of money, he’s a good choice because of his small-business background and connection to regular Montanans.
“Montana and the government and what we’re working on in the state – it is a business model,” he told MTN News this week.
Olszewski is pointing to his background in health care and the military, which he says enable him to debate Tester on two of his favorite issues: Health-care reform and veterans’ care.
“I’m an active physician, I’m a state legislator and I am a veteran, who can combine all three of those components and those issues in a compassionate, first-person story,” he says.
Olszewski, 55, served as a flight surgeon and trauma surgeon in the Air Force, and says one of his first deployments was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
Downing, who owns a California-based storage company, announced last week that Lolita Zinke, the wife of former Montana congressman and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, will be his campaign chair.
Downing didn’t reply to several messages from MTN News. He reported loaning his campaign $100,000 in May.
While Republicans prepare to do battle for their party’s nomination, Tester awaits – with a big campaign bank account.
He had nearly $5 million as of June 30, and no doubt has been busy raising plenty of additional campaign cash.
Tester told MTN News earlier this month that it doesn’t matter to him who wins the GOP nomination.
“The people will choose whatever man or woman is the right one to run, and we’ll run a great, straight-up race, and they’ll have a solid choice come November 2018,” he said. “We’ve got a great record to run on, and we’re going to focus on making that record even better over the next 15 months.”