Candidates, others mixing it up, in final days of GOP U.S. Senate primary

Posted at 5:05 PM, May 31, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-30 16:26:43-04

HELENA – As Montana’s four-way Republican U.S. Senate primary approaches next week’s finish line, the candidates – and plenty of outside money – aren’t holding anything back, blanketing airwaves and mailboxes with last-minute attacks.

The winner of Tuesday’s primary will take on U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in the general election, who’s considered one of the more vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the country.

State Auditor Matt Rosendale is the presumed front-runner in the crowded GOP primary, but with no independent polling, an open primary and an extraordinary $3 million of outside spending on the race, predicting the outcome is far from certain.

Most of the late-campaign action is focused on two candidates, Rosendale and former state District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings.

The Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth Action, a free-market group, has spent at least $1.15 million on TV ads tearing down Fagg’s judicial record, while Fagg is going after Rosendale with TV ads, mailers and social media comments, pointing out what he says will be fatal baggage for Rosendale in the general election.

“If you nominate me, I do not have any of these issues,” Fagg told MTN News this week. “I think it’s anybody’s race.”

The other candidates are Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, who has poured $1.1 million of his own money into the campaign, and state Sen. Al Olszewski, a Kalispell surgeon who calls himself a “dark horse” that’s making a late surge.

Olszewski had his best fundraising period of the campaign in the six weeks ending May 16 and is continuing his use of paid radio spots statewide.

“I’ve learned as a business owner that radio is a great branding tool,” he told MTN News. “I was delightfully surprised to see people donating (to my campaign), spread all across the state.”

Rosendale, the only one of the candidates who’s run a statewide election before, is promoting himself as the “true conservative” who has the national support needed to take on Tester, who had more than $6 million in his campaign fund as of mid-May.

Rosendale has raised $1.2 million for his campaign, but he’s also had help from a half-dozen outside groups that have spent $3 million either promoting him or attacking his opponents.

Club for Growth Action has spent $1.7 million of that total, including an ad that blasts Fagg as a judge who took it easy on criminals and who “defended a judge who suggested a 14-year-old rape victim was to blame for her own attack.”

The ad is a reference to a newspaper column Fagg wrote in 2014, commenting on fellow District Judge G. Todd Baugh of Billings, who was suspended by the Montana Supreme Court after sentencing a rapist to one month in prison and saying the girl “appeared older than her chronological age” and was “probably as much in control of the situation as the defendant,” a teacher. The defendant was later resentenced to 10 years in prison.

Fagg said in the column that Baugh was a “wonderful person,” but made a mistake “in the comments he made and the sentence he rendered.”

Fagg’s campaign is running an ad that raps Rosendale for favoring repeal of the death penalty and is also using charges against Rosendale originally made by Democrats: That Rosendale signed a Maryland real-estate document in 2015 saying he’s a Maryland resident, and that Rosendale, who calls himself a rancher, doesn’t own any cattle.

“I think they’re legitimate issues that the Democrats are going to hit him on,” Fagg said. “So we should not nominate someone who has all of these issues. … I’m a little frustrated that we’re going to nominate someone who is going to get clobbered by Jon Tester.”

Rosendale moved to Montana from Maryland in 2002 and owns a ranch near Glendive. His title company on a Maryland land sale says the document was an honest mistake, and Rosendale’s campaign said the “not-a-legitimate-rancher” charge is simply false, generated by a Democratic blog.

Club for Growth Action also has paid for a digital ad going after Downing, accusing him of running an investment fund in California that “defrauded investors.”

Downing’s campaign called the ad “baseless accusations” from a group that is supporting “Maryland Matt Rosendale” and trying to buy a U.S. Senate seat. It said the former tech entrepreneur and Air Force veteran feels like he’s in good position going into the last few days of the campaign.

“It should come as no surprise that a dark-money group out of the D.C. swamp, that opposes President Trump’s agenda, is attacking the only combat veteran running for the U.S. Senate,” the campaign said in a statement.

Olszewski, meanwhile, has avoided the fray of going after his opponents – and says that’s actually helping his campaign.

“These (other) guys are tarnishing themselves and making it hard to come into the general election strong,” he said. “I can come in without any baggage. I’m driving issues, instead of personality. People have complimented me for that.”

Olszewski has raised only $315,000, compared to more than $1 million for each of his opponents. But $82,000 of that money came in the six weeks ending May 16 – more than he’s raised from donors in any other quarter.