Republicans' US Senate flip becomes tougher as Montana contest turns tight (Part-1)

BILLINGS— Montana Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale wants to run for Senate, upending a contest in which many national GOP officials previously supported a different candidate to beat three-term Democrat Jon Tester. Two close Rosendale associates revealed his plans Wednesday. They requested anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the proposed revelation at a state GOP event this weekend.

The action sets up a contentious June 4 primary contest between firebrand conservative Rosendale and former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, backed by Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, National Republican Senatorial Committee head, and other senior Senate Republicans.

GOP leaders want to remove Tester to take over the Senate from Democrats, who have a narrow majority and will have several vulnerable incumbents on the 2024 ballot, including Tester.

Rosendale lost one Senate election against Tester in 2018. The Republican state auditor was aggressively endorsed by then-President Donald Trump, who had a personal grievance with Tester and visited Montana frequently after Tester denied Trump's Veterans Affairs nomination.

Rosendale had been nagging Republican leaders about running for months. That has angered GOP leaders and his own congressional delegation, who wanted to support Sheehy.

“It highlights divisions within the Republican Party,” said Carroll College political expert Jeremy Johnson in Helena, Montana. “They will both spend money on the primary. The Democratic candidate benefits if it gets extremely negative.”

Rosendale frequently criticizes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for being too ideologically liberal on social media and in public. He has also criticized GOP officials Rosendale alleges discouraged him from running.

Rosendale reverses roles by running as an outsider. As the 2018 GOP nominee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other Washington-based groups spent millions on Montana to help him defeat Tester. A Republican Senate committee representative did not reply to a request for comment.

Rosendale has substantial support in Montana despite Sheehy's appeal to national party officials. Last summer, dozens of GOP state politicians supported his candidacy. He handily defeated his 2022 rivals in the House for a Republican seat in eastern and central Montana. It would have been easy for him to run for a third term.