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In Test of GOP's Primary Strategy, Political Newcomer Aims To Bring Down Jon Tester. Can He Pull It Off?

(Tim for MT campaign)
October 12, 2023

Belgrade, Mont. — Violence against journalists is not exactly unpopular in this state. Then-House candidate Greg Gianforte (R.) body-slammed a reporter on the eve of his election in 2017. He won by 6 points, and now he's the governor.

So when Montana's Republican Senate candidate Tim Sheehy offered me a flight in a prop plane… well, I still said yes. And, while it may hurt his political prospects, he didn't kill me.

A naval aviator who went on to become a Navy SEAL, Sheehy is the founder and CEO of the aerial firefighting company Bridger Aerospace, which he took public in January. In the military, Sheehy—full disclosure, a high-school classmate of mine—saw firsthand the usefulness of aerial surveillance. Bridger applies it to wildfires, and the plane I went up in was equipped with a sensor and camera that can detect and map them. Others, the massive Super Scoopers, can graze water, scoop it up into the belly of the plane, and then drop it on wildfires.

Montana is one of a handful of races that will determine control of the Senate next year, and at just 37 years old, Sheehy is young, handsome, and capable of pouring money into his own campaign. That goes a long way towards explaining why Montana senator Steve Daines, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee this cycle, cajoled Sheehy into the race against his home-state colleague, Sen. Jon Tester (D.).

"Montanans overwhelmingly backed President Trump against Joe Biden, but instead of taking cues from his constituents, Jon Tester has backed Biden's agenda over 90 percent of the time," Daines told the Free Beacon. "That agenda has led to soaring prices, open borders, and chaos around the world, but Jon is still saying Biden is doing a 'good job.' Tim's experience as a Navy SEAL and successful businessman will provide voters with a clear contrast next November."

Gianforte and Ryan Zinke, who represents Montana's First Congressional District, along with sitting senators from Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) to Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), have also endorsed him.

Two years after sitting on the sidelines and watching Trump-backed candidates such as Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, and Blake Masters in Arizona go down to defeat in swing-state races that Republicans thought were winnable with better candidates, Sheehy's recruitment was one of the first signs GOP leaders had decided to go in a different direction this cycle, involving themselves in party primaries to recruit candidates they believe can win a general election.

Sheehy's race is as good a test as any of whether their investment pays off.

In Montana, the challenge is neutralizing Rep. Matt Rosendale (R.) by keeping him out of a primary or by defeating him in one.

On the Tuesday that Sheehy and I met up at the headquarters of Bridger Aerospace, Rosendale voted with seven other House Republicans, led by Florida's Matt Gaetz, to oust then-House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.). The day before, the Messenger revealed private comments Rosendale made to donors in late September indicating that he had prayed for Republicans to have a small majority in the House so that his band of rebels would have maximum leverage. This is not a man the GOP establishment wants to see get a promotion.

Tester, the state's three-term Democratic senator, is one of the most vulnerable Democrats of the cycle—and Rosendale lost to him in the 2018 Senate contest. That loss was sandwiched between two Trump landslides in the state—the former president won Montana by 20 points in 2016 and by 16 points in 2020—and by two Daines victories. Montana's Daines won his 2014 and 2020 races by 17 points and 10 points, respectively.

Sheehy was reluctant to jump in, but he says the Biden administration's botched pullout of Afghanistan was a turning point. "It was a disgrace and that's why I decided to run, to be honest," he says. "I never, ever considered politics. You guys have gotten to know me, I don't fucking like this shit, I don't want to spend my time in that stupid city with you and your friends, but, you know, somebody's gotta do it."

Rosendale supported the withdrawal, if not the Biden administration's execution of it, but Sheehy has no time for the argument that, in Rosendale's words, "we've had our troops in Afghanistan for far too long."

"Why would we get out?" Sheehy asks. "Who's calling for us to bring troops home from Guantanamo Bay? We've been there since 1898 when we won the Spanish-American War. Who's saying bring troops home from the 38th parallel in Korea, we've been there since 1953. Who's saying to bring the 30,000 troops in Germany home, they've been there since we spanked the Germans in 1945. Twenty-thousand troops in Japan. Nobody's saying to bring them home."

Rather, he argues, the Afghanistan withdrawal was politically motivated, geared toward a photo op for President Joe Biden. "It was because Joe Biden wanted to have a press conference on 9/11 to say, 'Listen, I ended our country's longest war.' Which is the same thing Obama did in 2011 when he yanked us out of Iraq so he could run in 2012 and say, 'I ended the war.' … That was a national disgrace and it sits at the feet of Joe Biden and all the Democrats that have enabled him. So I have a personal vendetta and that's a big reason why I'm doing this."

A Sheehy-Rosendale matchup would be reminiscent of establishment throw-downs with the Tea Party in the 2010s. Rosendale, a sitting congressman who has won statewide before, would enter the race with far more name recognition, but the question that hovered in Bozeman while I was there was—will he even run? And if he does, will the Club for Growth, which has historically helped to bankroll insurgent campaigns, including Rosendale's, be there to support him?

Both parties have been cagey. It's getting late to jump into a Senate race, and while Rosendale has boasted of a 54-point primary lead over Sheehy and said he is "considering" entering the race, he is still sitting on the sidelines.

Rosendale did not respond to a request for comment.

"We have nothing to announce and have not made a decision on the race," a Club for Growth spokesman told the Free Beacon, and sources familiar with the group's thinking say that, though the group backed Rosendale in his 2020 House campaign and his 2018 Senate bid, it has not made any commitments to him about a 2024 race. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

On his own, Rosendale is not a prolific fundraiser, and even with the Club for Growth at his back, Tester in 2018 outspent him by more than three to one in hard dollars.

"He's not a viable fundraiser," Sheehy tells me, "and this race will take money."

That said, the mere threat of a Rosendale primary, and Rosendale's relentless criticisms of Sheehy as a tool of the "party bosses" in Washington, may already have served their purpose, pulling Sheehy further to the right than he would naturally land on issues from the demolition of McCarthy to support for Ukraine, which Rosendale adamantly opposes.

Asked whether he would have supported the effort to boot McCarthy, Sheehy paused. "I don't really want to give hypothetical positions on votes I might have taken in an office I have never held. Probably not, but I wasn't there."

And, while Sheehy isn't in hock to the GOP's isolationist wing on Afghanistan, it is less clear where he stands on Ukraine. While he once argued that "the price tag for putting [Russian president Vladimir] Putin down will be a lot higher" down the road—that "soldiers, planes, bombs and bullets will be needed against this Tyrant"—he now says he doesn't support further aid to the country.

"Stopping him in his tracks last year was a very different mission than what we're seeing now," Sheehy says. "What we're seeing now in these aid packages, like, we're basically propping up all of Ukrainian society."

"How do you tell our border agents we don't have the money to secure our border … and we're telling them we don't have the money to secure the border, yet we can send billions to Ukraine," he goes on. "I don't know how you square that with the American people."

Asked whether it's a matter of money or the Biden administration's decisions to reverse several Trump-era policies that essentially gave a green light to migrants looking to cross the border illegally, Sheehy says, "That's a great question. Everything comes down to money."

Once a ticket-splitting state, Montana has become more reliably red over the past decade, fueled by a combination of factors, including in-migration during the COVID crisis, as residents from California and the Pacific Northwest fled the lockdowns for a state with fewer restrictions. It has also been buoyed by the influx of white, working-class voters to the GOP.

But Tester, who dons a Carhartt jacket and a flattop haircut and describes himself as a humble "dirt farmer," has managed to hang on. "He's affable, he comes back to the state, he plays a good ho-hum farmer and acts like a Montanan," says Montana's Republican attorney general Austin Knudsen. "He's talented."

Just five senators represent states carried by the opposing party's presidential candidate, and just three of those—all Democrats—are up for reelection this year. Tester, first elected in 2006, is one of them.

Tester has always tried to distance himself from the national party, emphasizing his deep Montana roots and bringing reporters out to his family farm, where he has been photographed in his tool shop, riding tractors, and doing grunt work. He even jumped off his tractor and peed in a pea field for one astonished newsman.

Sheehy's goal, in a state whose citizens love guns and have a libertarian bent, is to tie Tester back to the national Democratic Party.

"He's vulnerable on gun rights," Knudsen says. "He comes home and he talks like a card-carrying NRA member, but then he goes back to D.C. and supports almost all of Chuck Schumer's gun-control policies."

Though Tester's campaign boasted that he has shot "hundreds of cows and hogs," the National Rifle Association downgraded his rating in 2018 from an A- to D in 2018 after he voted against the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Tester, Sheehy says, "is no Joe Manchin." (Manchin, West Virginia's Democratic senator, supported Kavanaugh's confirmation.) "He's been a firm progressive and he's not going to be able to hide from that agenda."

He continues: "We have an open border. We have crime in our streets. We have a fentanyl epidemic that is being fueled by our open border and boldness from China. We had a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan fueled by Joe Biden and [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken's terrible foreign policy. We have inflation through the roof. … Almost all of that is due to the completely terrible policy of the Biden administration and the progressive Left, and Jon Tester is a loyal foot soldier for those policies.

"The impacts of these very progressive policies are now not theoretical," Sheehy says, "we're seeing them in real time, and Jon Tester has been a loyal foot soldier for those policies his entire career. In elections past, he's been able to thread the needle, he's had some very favorable macro conditions… This is the first time he's gotta run with a very unpopular Democratic president at the top of the ticket."