Businessman Troy Downing, former District Judge Russell Fagg, state Sen. Al Olszewski and State Auditor Matt Rosendale spent most of their first debate introducing themselves and establishing their conservative bona fides for the crowd at Montana State University.
The candidates interacted little with each other during the 1 ½ hour debate, but gave their views on the economy, immigration, health care, the military and public lands without rebuttal. They weren’t asked about Tester by the moderators, but they saved their daggers for the incumbent for their closing statements.
Rosendale, who is confident that he is the front-runner as the June 5 primary election nears, said that Montana voters will elect someone with a flattop to the Senate in November.
“The only question is whether it’s going to be Jon Tester, who supports and represents (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer and (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi, or whether it’s going to be Matt Rosendale, who represents the people of Montana,” he said.
The other candidates didn’t rise to Rosendale’s bait, but listed their own reasons they will beat Tester. Fagg, as the deep-rooted Montanan. Olszewski, as a veteran, surgeon and legislator. Downing, as a combat veteran and a political outsider much like President Donald Trump when he ran for office.
Supporting Trump’s agenda was a recurring theme among some of the candidates, after the president won the state in 2016 by 20 percentage points.
“I think we’re going to do just fine with the great negotiator at the helm,” Downing said.
Fagg, who retired after 22 years as a Billings judge, touted his deep Montana roots and said Democrats would “unmercifully beat up” a nominee who is not from the state. Rosendale and Downing moved to Montana from other states years ago.
“Put me on the ticket and that takes that argument away from Tester,” Fagg said.
Olszewski said he is the dark-horse candidate without the big-name endorsements of some of the others, but that means he will not be indebted to anybody.
“I’m the only guy up here who’s not dancing with the Washington establishment, the old guard of Montana,” Olszewski said.
Things grew slightly more heated when Downing was asked about charges he faces for buying Montana resident hunting and fishing licenses when he was still a California resident. Downing adamantly denied the allegations and said it was a liberal conspiracy against him.
“This was clearly an attack from the left,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem in my entire life until I ran for office.”
Tester is seeking a third term in November’s general election, which will be one of the most closely watched races this year. The Green Party also will have a primary election to choose between two candidates, and a Libertarian candidate also is running in the election.
Each Republican candidate is trying to stake a claim as a legitimate contender after the party’s first choice to challenge Tester, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, passed to take his spot in President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
Tester’s campaign declined to comment on the debate. The state’s Democratic Party said in a statement that the entire GOP field would be bad for public lands, veterans and Montana.