A hostile Republican Senate primary is brewing in Montana, where the anticipated candidacy of Rep. Matt Rosendale has some of former President Donald Trump’s top advisers and allies stewing. The tensions — described in interviews with NBC News by seven GOP strategists and consultants aware of the hatred — threaten to undermine Rosendale’s campaign before it officially starts.
Many party leaders are lined up behind Rosendale’s prominent opponent, Tim Sheehy, in what is likely to be one of the most brutal Senate contests in the country this year. They see the former Navy SEAL as a fresh-faced prospect who can do what Rosendale couldn’t do six years ago: unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in a state Trump won twice by significant margins.
According to a source close to his campaign, Rosendale, 63, is expected to enter the race as soon as this weekend. But external dynamics are already shaping the primary. Democrats have run ads attacking Sheehy, 38, ignoring Rosendale and triggering suspicions from Sheehy’s backers at the National Republican Senatorial Committee that Democrats are meddling to draw a weaker opponent.
The race represents an early test of the NRSC’s strategy, involving a cycle of handpicking candidates in certain states to avoid chaotic primaries and produce more electable nominees.
Rosendale has some pro-Trump cards to play. He took a pre-campaign tour across Montana last month with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of the former president’s most vocal allies. And he’s a regular on the podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, a former top adviser to Trump with a sizeable right-wing audience.
However, friction between Rosendale and the former president dates back to Rosendale’s loss to Tester in 2018, despite Trump’s endorsement and victories by other GOP Senate candidates in Trump-friendly states like Florida, Indiana, and North Dakota. The situation escalated last year — first when Rosendale publicly refused to accept a phone call from Trump in the middle of a House leadership fight and again as he took months to endorse Trump’s 2024 presidential bid.
A new rift developed last week when Trump-aligned consultant Alex Bruesewitz, a Rosendale critic, said the Montana GOP had rescinded an invitation for him to speak at its convention after Rosendale allies complained. In a post on X, Donald Trump Jr. called the move “leftwing cancel culture” and noted that Bruesewitz is “one of my father’s strongest and most loyal supporters.”.
Democrats are eager to exploit a messy primary. The Montana-focused Last Best Place PAC, funded exclusively by Majority Forward and affiliated with the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, has spent millions of dollars on ads. With Rosendale not yet an official candidate, the group has focused on Sheehy, who has been on air for months.
Another group affiliated with the Montana Democratic Party has spent about $26,000 on Facebook ads that attack Sheehy while calling attention to Rosendale’s opposition to abortion. Sheehy allies view such messaging as an attempt to boost Rosendale with base primary voters.
Montana Democratic Party spokesperson Hannah Rehm said the effort is meant to highlight both candidates’ “toxic records” and accused Sen. Steve Daines, the Montana Republican who chairs the NRSC, of “using unprecedented tactics to attack a home state colleague and keep him out of the race.”
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