GOP Infighting and Democratic Mischief Animate the Montana Senate Race

In one of the nation’s leading Senate races, the most important candidate may be the one who didn’t enter the contest.

The battle to challenge Sen. Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana — already a bitter one with deep national implications and acute intensity of family drama — has increasingly focused on Rep. Matt Rosendale, an anti-abortion, pro-choice Republican agitator.

Both parties are using him as a pawn in their electoral chess match: Establishment Republicans, who have lined up behind Tim Sheehy, a wealthy businessman, are trying to keep Mr. Rosendale out of the race, while Democrats appear to be helping clear the way for his arrival.

Mr. Rosendale’s entry seems imminent. On Thursday, he said in a podcast that he had told Senator Steve Daines, the Montana resident who oversees the Republican Senate campaign arm, that he would run for Mr. Tester’s seat.

Such a move would complicate the plans of Mr. Daines, who is trying to avoid divisive primaries and the elevation of polarizing far-right candidates. Often endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump, such candidates have won Republican primaries in recent cycles only to falter in general elections decided by moderate voters.

This year, Republicans have a favorable map as they seek to regain control of the Senate, where the races considered the most competitive are in two states — Montana and Ohio — that Mr. Trump won handily in 2016 and 2020. But the Democrats who hold those seats, Mr. Tester and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio are popular and have experience navigating rough political terrain.

Mr. Tester has already defeated Mr. Rosendale once, in 2018. Since then, Mr. Rosendale has voted to nullify the 2020 election and last year helped spark chaos in the House when he and a small group of Republicans teamed up to oust their party’s speaker, Kevin McCarthy . He also expressed support for a ban on abortion without exceptions.

The historical difficulty of defeating an incumbent president like Mr. The saw, even in deep red, only adds to the urgency of Mr. Daines to avoid a contentious primary that would force Republicans to launch political attacks on each other instead of the rival party.

It wasn’t going well.

A super PAC that backed Mr. Daines in Montana, known as More Jobs, Less Government, has been preparing for Mr. Rosendale’s entry into the race by testing a series of attack ads, previously unreported, aimed at casting doubt on his conservative credentials.

The group has already spent nearly $1 million on pro-Sheehy spots in Montana, according to AdImpact, a media monitoring firm. In a previously unreported poll for the super PAC, conducted by Tony Fabrizio, Mr. Trump’s longtime pollster, Mr. Sheehy was leading Mr. Rosendale in the hypothetical primary, 48 percent to 24 percent.

In an interview Thursday on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, Mr. Rosendale said Mr. Daines repeatedly pressured him not to enter the race. He said that in one instance an ally of Mr. Daines — described by Mr. Rosendale as a “political soldier” — asked a Rosendale confidante: “What will it take to keep you out of this race?”

Mr Rosendale said he received a direct warning from Mr Daines in November 2022 to “tone down” and stop “making trouble” in the House.

Mr. Rosendale said that Mr. Daines said the billionaires will “spend a lot of money against you”, adding: “What do you want me to tell them?”

In Mr. Rosendale’s recounting of the conversation, he replied that he would win the primary and such donors were “better off saving their money for the general election.”

Asked to respond to Mr. Rosendale’s accusations, Mike Berg, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said: “It is unfortunate that Congressman Rosendale is shifting the blame for his fundraising challenges and staff retention problems.”

This week, the NRSC ordered six-figure television advertising to promote Mr. Sheehy.

Last summer, more than three dozen Republicans in the Montana Legislature — including Senate President Jason Ellsworth and House Speaker Matt Regier — signed the letter urging Mr. Rosendale to run.

And in November, a Republican former state representative, Roger Koopman, accused Mr. Sheehy and his allies of trying to impose party unity with “various intimidating messages and veiled threats of retaliation”.

Montana Democrats, meanwhile, are quietly running a series of online ads that appear to promote Mr. Rosendale in the expected Republican primary by drawing attention to his conservative credentials — though the state Democratic Party disputes that the Facebook ads are intended to help him.

The social media spots are subtle, but resemble a controversial strategy Democrats used in the 2022 cycle to help right-wing candidates they believed would be easier to defeat in the general election. Those bets worked in places like Michigan, where Democrats flipped the House seat by defeating Trump-backed John Gibbs, and Pennsylvania, where Doug Mastrian’s marginal campaign for governor lost by double digits.

Montana Democrats have spent $2.7 million to $3.3 million promoting the spots on Facebook since last month, according to disclosures maintained by Facebook. The ads are produced by the group Treasure State Truths, which has ties to a Democratic consulting firm.

Some of the Democratic Facebook ads focused on Mr. Rosendale, while others focused on Mr. Sheehy.

The Sheehy-specific ads directly condemn the candidate or call on viewers to take action against him. “We just can’t believe what Tim Sheehy says,” says several spots. “Tell Tim Sheehy and the out-of-state millionaires to stop hurting Montana,” says another.

But the ads aimed at Mr. Rosendale are more than that.

One site, for example, reinforces his support for a no-exceptions abortion ban by pointing to an opinion column praising the Montana Republican for his support.

The single line of text in the ad quotes the column, which says Mr. Rosendale has “always been an outspoken and unapologetic advocate” of abortion restrictions.

All of the spots are tagged with a disclosure identifying the Montana Democratic Party as the sponsor. Democrats said the Facebook ads were consistent with messages the party has used against both Republicans.

On television, a super PAC that appears to have ties to Democrats has spent more than $5 million on ads attacking Mr. Sheehy. The group, known as Last Best Place, did not disclose its donors. Politico published in September that the group’s airtime was bought by a company called Mountain Media Agency, which shares the address with Old Town Media, a Democratic campaign firm.

“The Democrats are clearly repeating their cynical strategy of meddling in the Republican primaries,” Berg said.

Hannah Rehm, a spokeswoman for the Montana Democratic Party, said the Facebook videos were not intended to promote Mr. Rosendale. Republicans, she said, overreacted to the ads because of the battle between Sheehy allies and Rosendale supporters.

“Maybe the call is coming from home,” she said.

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