BILLINGS – Republican and state District Judge Russell Fagg is traveling the state, raising money and touting prominent endorsements – but insists he’s still “exploring” whether to run for the U.S. Senate.
“No, I’m not a candidate at this point, and I made that very clear,” he told MTN News in an interview late last week in Billings. “I really just want to find out what sort of encouragement is out there. At this point, I’ve had tremendous encouragement.”
Fagg, 57, has formed an exploratory committee that can raise money and finance his travels around the state, including public events and meetings with various groups. He says he’ll decide whether to enter the race after stepping down from his judgeship on Oct. 13.
Four other Republicans have said they’re in the race for the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in 2018: State Auditor Matt Rosendale, state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell, Big Sky businessman Troy Downing and Belgrade businessman Ron Murray.
Fagg, however, certainly sounds like he’s made up his mind to run.
In a question-and-answer session with members of the Billings Petroleum Club late last month, Fagg said he has “an excellent shot of getting through the (Republican) primary” and that “I’m the best chance of winning that general election in November 2018” against Tester.
The Montana Democratic Party is tracking Fagg and recording his speeches – and, criticizing his “shadow campaign” as unethical.
“It’s time for Fagg to just own up to what he’s doing: Secretly raising money so he can run for the U.S. Senate,” Chris Meagher, spokesman for the party, said this week.
Yet Fagg notes that the state Judicial Standards Commission reviewed his formation of an exploratory committee while he’s still a sitting judge, and declared in July that he’s not violating any ethical rules.
Fagg, who also served as a state legislator in the early 1990s, says he believes he’d be the best person to challenge Tester because of his experience as a judge – “I’ve seen so many circumstances and the issues that face Montana” – and because he’s “center-right” and hails from Billings, which is important in statewide elections.
“For all of those reasons, I think I would have the best shot of all the candidates to run against Sen. Tester,” he told MTN News.
Fagg also says he’s been endorsed by three former Republicans Montana governors – Marc Racicot, Stan Stephens and Judy Martz – and two former Republican congressmen: Denny Rehberg and Rick Hill.
“That really makes the decision a lot easier,” he said. “But I’m not 100 percent there yet. I’m still talking to people.”
In his public appearances, Fagg has said the nation needs to cut its budget deficit and that the federal government must peel back many of its regulations and leave more oversight to the states, on business, the environment, education and even health care.
“I’m a big believer in local control,” he told the Petroleum Club. “We’re a country of freedom and individual rights and the rule of law and property rights. But we’re losing that.”
Fagg also says it’s “interesting” that the Democrats are already tracking and recording him.
“I think they’re obviously concerned about a potential candidacy from Russ Fagg against Senator Tester, and of course, that thrills me,” he told MTN News.