Waiting on Rosendale, GOP candidates exploring Montana eastern district House race

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Posted at 5:58 PM, Aug 14, 2023

HELENA — There’s been speculation for weeks that Montana U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale might jump into the Republican race for U.S. Senate, and while he still hasn’t made an announcement, other Republicans are already interested in the eastern congressional district seat he may leave open.

On Monday, two statewide elected officials announced they’ll consider campaigns for Montana’s 2nd congressional district – but only if Rosendale decides to run for Senate.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said in a statement that she was launching an exploratory committee to look into a run for U.S. House.

"Elsie Arntzen has been a resilient champion for Montana's parents & families throughout her eight years as Superintendent of Public Instruction," said Sam Rubino, a spokesperson for the committee. “We have been fortunate to have rock-solid conservative representation in Rep. Rosendale; Arntzen is committed to building upon that legacy should Rosendale toss his hat in the ring for US Senate.”

Rubino said, if Rosendale does run for House again, the committee will close and return all donations, and Arntzen will support his reelection bid.

Arntzen, a former teacher and state legislator from Billings, was elected state superintendent in 2016 and reelected in 2020. She is now term-limited and can’t run again in 2024.

Also on Monday morning, State Auditor Troy Downing expressed interest in the race. In a statement posted to social media, he also praised Rosendale as a “conservative champion.”

“I'm focused on doing the job the great people of Montana elected me to do,” he said. “If Congressman Rosendale decides to pursue the U.S. Senate seat, I will discuss with my family and prayerfully consider running for the Second Congressional District.”

Downing, an entrepreneur from Bozeman, was first elected in 2020 and would be eligible to run for a second term as auditor.

They aren’t the only ones thinking about running in the eastern district.

Randy Pinocci, a member of the Montana Public Service Commission from Great Falls, told MTN Monday that he had been the first candidate to announce his intention to run – contingent on Rosendale – several months ago. He said he will file for the House seat immediately if Rosendale announces he’s pursuing a Senate campaign.

Pinocci, a former GOP legislator, was elected to his second term on the PSC last year. He touted his history working for Montana’s members of Congress and representing a district that covers a large piece of the 2nd congressional district.

“I believe I have more experience than anyone else,” he said.

State Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, told MTN people had encouraged him to run for the House, and he is considering it – but again, only if Rosendale doesn’t. He said Rosendale was a strong conservative leader, and the district needs someone who shares those conservative values.

“I fought for them in the military and now in the Montana Senate, and I’d be proud to fight for those values in the U.S. Congress if Congressman Rosendale runs for U.S. Senate, and if I decide to campaign,” he said.

Bogner was reelected to the Senate in 2022. He served as Senate president pro tem during the 2023 legislative session.

With so many GOP candidates interested in the seat but praising the incumbent, a lot now hinges on Rosendale’s decision whether or not to enter the Republican primary to challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester next year.

Sen. Steve Daines, Montana’s other senator, is chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the main campaign arm for Senate Republicans. He and the NRSC have highlighted the candidacy of Tim Sheehy, a Gallatin County businessman. Gov. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke have endorsed Sheehy to take on Tester.

However, Rosendale called Sheehy a candidate of the “DC cartel” when he announced he was entering the race in June.

On Monday, Aashka Varma, a spokesperson for Rosendale, released a statement saying Rosendale had not made a decision and remained focused on representing Montanans.

“One thing is for sure, Sen. Tester does not represent Montana, and Montana voters will make their decision over the next few months over who will replace him, not Mitch McConnell and the DC cartel,” Varma said. “With a 54-point lead in a primary against Tim Sheehy and a 5-point lead on Sen. Tester, Rep. Rosendale is the clear choice among Montana voters. He has their overwhelming trust and support should he decide to run.”

The only Democratic candidate to announce a run for the eastern district House seat so far is Kevin Hamm, a Helena business owner and president of Montana Pride.