HELENA – State Auditor Matt Rosendale defeated former state District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings and two others Tuesday night in Montana’s four-way Republican U.S. Senate primary, setting up a face-off with Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester this fall in one of the most-watched Senate races in the country.
With more than 80 percent of the votes counted, Rosendale led Fagg led by 4,000 votes. Rosendale had 33 percent to Fagg’s 30 percent; Big Sky businessman Troy Downing had 19 percent and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell had 18 percent.
Rosendale, the only statewide officeholder, entered the race as the likely favorite and has had the help of $3 million of outside spending by national conservative groups that support him.
Club for Growth Action, one of those groups, spent more than $1.1 million on TV ads bashing Fagg’s judicial record – ads that Fagg dismissed as grossly misleading.
But Fagg did well in his home county of Yellowstone, piling up an early lead before returns from across the state started coming in.
Fagg also has the support of many in the state Republican Party’s old guard and has pitched himself as the one best-positioned to take down Tester, as a Montana native with a long and varied political resume.
He’s noted that Rosendale moved to Montana 15 years ago and will be tagged by Democrats as a carpetbagger – a charge that Rosendale says won’t stick.
Downing, making his first run for political office, sold himself as a non-politician who will be strongly supportive of President Trump. The former tech entrepreneur also has played up his military service, enlisting in the Air Force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and serving in Afghanistan.
Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon, called himself the dark horse of the race, running a low-budget campaign using radio ads and saying he’ll enter the race without the baggage of any other candidate.
Tuesday’s final voter turnout appears headed toward a higher-than-usual level, as more than 190,000 Montanans had already voted via absentee ballots as of Monday night. If the proportion of absentee votes is similar to past elections, the final turnout will be close to 40 percent.
Tester is considered one of the more vulnerable incumbent Democratic U.S. senators in the country, running for re-election in a state won handily by President Donald Trump in 2016.
The two-term senator had no primary opposition and was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
The fall ballot also will include Libertarian Rick Breckenridge and a possible Green Party candidate.
Green Party candidates Steve Kelly and Tim Adams, both of Bozeman, squared off Tuesday in an unusual primary, with the winner advancing to the general election. However, a state district judge is considering a lawsuit by the state Democratic Party challenging the Green Party’s qualification for the ballot. A ruling is expected this summer.
Kelly led Adams in early returns.