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The GOP scrum for Montana's second House district

Almost every candidate backs Trump and names immigration and federal spending as the country's most pressing issues. What's a voter to do?

The eastern congressional district candidate forum that the Yellowstone County Republicans hosted at their Lincoln Reagan Dinner in April was, by the standards of campaign-season political events, remarkable.

But not because of emotional fireworks or raised voices or intra-party bickering. Those are all commonplace. What was remarkable, instead, was that in a sprawling Montana Republican Party with no shortage of internal divides, almost all of the eight Republicans vying for Montana's second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives sound the same, the construction of their personalities and vocal cords aside.

All but one said they'll be voting for former President Donald Trump this year. (When moderate former Sidney lawmaker Joel Krautter said he would instead write in a Republican of his choosing, the crowd at the Swift River Ranch - where cardboard cutouts of Trump abounded - was stunned to silence).

They mostly shared the view that Joe Biden represents an existential threat to the U.S. They essentially all pledged to dramatically cut federal spending, "shut down" the southern border, limit American foreign assistance - except to Israel - develop fossil fuels and protect Montana agriculture.

"We all believe the same things. You saw it," former Congressman Denny Rehberg, one of the candidates, told Montana Free Press. "There's no difference. Somebody asked me the other day, 'Is there anything you disagree about with Donald Trump? And my point was, 'Yeah, he doesn't drink beer.'"

The result: a crowded primary where policy differences between candidates are few and a particular form of right-wing identity politics rules the day. But within the distinctions that do exist among the candidates are clues about how each candidate will govern and reckon with the all-encompassing political force of the Trump movement in the GOP.

At the top of the pile, at least in terms of fundraising and name identification, are state Auditor Troy Downing, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and Rehberg, who represented Montana's then-at-large U.S. House district from 2001 to 2013. They're each - at least publicly - pro-Trump Republicans with similar positions on most issues. They've each spent time in the political spotlight, often emerging with bruises from personal controversy. But they also each represent distinct strains of Montana Republicanism, even within the relatively narrow confines of the party today. Aside from those three, there are ideologues, businesspeople, gunslingers, lawmakers, once-wases and may-bes, the kind of field that assembles when an open seat appears in a deep-red district that, for the right person, could provide a long and potentially influential career in national politics.

"I don't know if Congress is going to return to a functioning status again, but generally in Congress to make a difference you need to serve for a longer period of time," Jeff Essmann, a former GOP lawmaker and director of the state GOP from Billings, told MTFP. "The eastern district offers a secure seat for someone to do that if they have interest in doing the work."

Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

Republican supporters prepare to take a picture with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump at the Yellowstone County Lincoln Reagan dinner near Billings on April 19.

WHERE THE STATE DIVIDES

To call Montana's second district in the U.S. House the "eastern district" is a little misleading. The sprawling district covers three-quarters of the state, stretching eastward from the vicinity of Lewis and Clark County, skipping over Gallatin County and covering every inch to the north and the south until it hits the border with the Dakotas.

It's overwhelmingly rural, but it's also home to some of the state's largest cities - Billings, Great Falls and Helena - something that candidates tend to gloss over when emphasizing their farmer-rancher bona fides. The comparative strength of Democrats in those cities, though, has done little to tilt the balance of the district away from the GOP in recent elections. In 2022, the Cook Political Report assigned the district an R+16 partisan lean, meaning that voters there, based on the ballots they cast in the last two presidential elections, were about 16 "points" more Republican than the nation as a whole.

The district is relatively new. Montana's independent redistricting commission finalized its boundaries based on 2020 census data in 2021, ending several years of at-large congressional representation as fast-growing Montana gained a second House district for the first time since the 1990s.

Several Democrats are also running for the seat: Helena activist Kevin Hamm, Billings businessman Ming Cabrera, former lawmaker John Driscoll and Broadus rancher Steve Held. Anything is possible, but a victory by any of these candidates in the general election - given the district's ruby-red hue - would be a staggering upset. Most observers agree the winner of the GOP primary is likely to represent the district in Congress. Matt Rosendale, the incumbent, beat the second-place independent candidate by almost 25 points in 2022.

THE PREDECESSOR

Rosendale, a Republican hardliner affiliated with the House Freedom Caucus, is not seeking re-election.

He began the election cycle with grander ambitions, publicly flirting with a primary challenge to Gallatin County businessman Tim Sheehy in the race for U.S. Senate and picking fights with the GOP establishment he said hand-picked Sheehy to run. He ultimately launched a Senate bid but withdrew less than a week later after Trump endorsed Sheehy and an unsubstantiated rumor about his personal life began swirling.

Rosendale, apparently with the support of Trump and others, announced he would instead run for re-election in the House where he could continue to build seniority and "continue our work to cut spending, secure the border and restore America's energy dominance," he said at the time.

But by that time, a slew of Republicans were already campaigning to replace Rosendale on the presumption that he would challenge Sheehy.

"The way this race has been going, I'm not going to change what I'm doing. I've got meetings to attend," former state lawmaker Ric Holden, one of those Republicans, told MTFP at the time.

Rosendale's explanation was that he was frustrated by the stagnancy of Washington politics and embittered by what he said were false claims about a romantic affair. He added that members of his family had received a death threat.

It's also true that former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican whom Rosendale and other Freedom Caucus members ousted last year in a historic coup, launched a political operation earlier this year to tank the hardliners who voted against him, as Politico reported in February.

Rosendale caused problems for party leadership but remained popular with legislators and local party activists. More than three dozen state lawmakers, including the Montana Legislature's Senate president and its speaker of the House, signed a letter of public support for Rosendale before he even announced his intention to challenge Sheehy. Republican hardline state lawmakers also personally implored Trump to endorse Rosendale. ("Do you know why he hasn't declared? He's probably waiting for my endorsement," the former president speculated.)

Months later, Rosendale declared for the Senate, Trump endorsed Sheehy, and Rosendale bowed out of the Senate and then the House race.

Even if Rosendale couldn't beat the party machine, his figure still hovers over the race to replace him. His favored talking points are prominent in the primary field, and many of the candidates seem to share his willingness to obstruct the government, at least if Biden is in the White House. (Rosendale often noted - proudly - that the 118th Congress was among the least productive in history.)

Here's what Rosendale said when he bowed out of the House race: "I've tried for three years to have an impact on the two big issues that I think are national security threats. And that is the out-of-control spending and immigration."

Those issues dominated a candidate forum last month, with candidates advocating the cleaving of federal agencies and promising to pass no-budget-no-pay legislation and a balanced budget amendment. They called for a return to single-subject appropriations legislation, a favorite Rosendale talking point that he's often wielded against other Republicans. Several candidates called for a return to Trump-era immigration policies.

"We need to send those people back," Downing told the crowd. "They're not just economic refugees, they're bad people. They're drug users, and they're terrorists trying to hurt this country."

The tenor of the rhetoric is no accident.

"They're responding to frankly what polls show most of the Republican voters are interested in in terms of issues going on at the national level," Essmann told MTFP.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

Troy Downing, third from right with microphone, speaks during the eastern U.S. House district GOP primary candidate forum at the Yellowstone County GOP Lincoln Reagan Dinner on April 19, 2024.

TROY DOWNING

"There are candidates here who have never received a paycheck that isn't taxpayer-funded," Downing, Montana's current state auditor, told MTFP.

As for himself, he said, he grew up hardscrabble, the child of a teenage mother. As an adult he found success in the tech sector, in real estate and in self-storage. He served two Air Force deployments in Afghanistan - heavily emphasized in his TV ads - and now runs a state agency.

He said his broad array of experience is why voters will resonate with him, and why he leads the pack in individual financial contributions.

"You wanna know who you're gonna get? Just look and see what they've done," he told MTFP earlier this year.

As Montana's auditor - a position that Rosendale also held for a term before running for Congress - he said he's been a crime fighter and a policymaker, investigating securities fraud and working with legislators on insurance reform.

"I had this woman in Lake County a couple years ago come up to me. She told me she had been involved in Montana politics for 30 years and never knew what the auditor did until I was in that office," he told MTFP.

Downing, who describes himself as a "classical conservative," said what sets him apart from the other candidates is his ability to walk the walk.

"Anybody can get on a stage and recite rhetoric and platitudes, but look who actually shows up, rolls up their sleeves and does the work," he said.

But he's skeptical of the burn-it-down approach that some in the House Republican caucus - people like Rosendale - have taken in Washington.

"I'll stick to my guns on what I believe," he said. "But anybody going in there saying 'It's my way or the highway,' is not good for the country and not good for Montana."

Downing strikes a familiar profile in Montana politics. Originally from California, he built a vacation home in Big Sky in the late 1990s and moved to the state full-time by 2009. That makes him one of several tech-industry alums who settled in the Gallatin Valley and went on to a career in Montana Republican politics - Gov. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines both fit that mold.

In 2005, Downing's ex-wife testified in family court in California that Downing had threatened to kill her during a dispute. When that story and other details of his divorce were revealed during his run for state auditor in 2020, Downing denied ever threatening his ex-wife. Arntzen's campaign has resurfaced the story this time around.

"I categorically deny the accusation made," he told the Billings Gazette then. "The judge who presided over this case saw no credibility and dismissed my ex-wife's motions."

In 2018, Downing pleaded guilty to unlawfully obtaining a less-costly resident hunting license as an out-of-state resident multiple times between 2011 and 2016. Downing maintained that his accountant had mistakenly listed his full-time residence as California - a claim investigators, who said Downing's Montana residence was "seasonal at best," doubted. His 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, in which he lost to Rosendale in the primary, derided the investigation as a "witch hunt" instigated by the "deep state," referring to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Primary opponents of Downing - namely Arntzen - have attempted to paint him as insufficiently aligned with Trump, resurfacing comments he made on social media in 2015 and 2016 in which he described Trump as unelectable and "either a liar or an idiot."

"I've supported President Trump since he's been a nominee for that office and throughout," Downing told MTFP. "I will say before any of us knew who Trump was, a lot of conservative Republicans were Ted Cruz fans. Trump came into the scene, and we didn't know who he was at first. I think what he's done has been good for America."

ELSIE ARNTZEN

"One thing that a media outlet once called me is I'm a 'culture warrior,'" Elsie Arntzen, Montana's superintendent of public instruction, told MTFP.

She said that's one of the things that sets her apart. As the head of Montana's public schools, Arntzen has walked headlong into the middle of several cultural battles, whether claiming without evidence that schools are providing cat litter boxes for students or speaking out against changes to federal Title IX rules that extend student protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

"Under my watch, Montana only has two genders: male and female," she wrote on her campaign's X account. "I've protected children as the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In Congress, I will defend Montana's children & families."

"I know that I am the most conservative candidate in the race," Arntzen told MTFP, "and I have a track record for that ... having very conservative credentials, the topics that I speak about, the economy, the southern border, they resonate through all of that."

She touts her endorsements by members of the House Freedom Caucus, which she says she intends to join if elected, following in Rosendale's footsteps. Other prominent endorsers include a slew of state legislative hardliners and Wyoming Congressman Harriet Hageman, who defeated Liz Cheney in a bitter 2022 primary.

"They are the patriots that are watching that checkbook," she said.

She also said it's important that the Montana conservative movement puts a woman forward to represent the state at the national level.

"Montana has not sent one forward for such a long time," she said.

Arntzen, originally from Billings, spent 23 years as a public school teacher after a previous career in the private sector. She was first elected to the state Legislature in 2004 and elected superintendent of public instruction in 2016.

Her record as a superintendent is mixed. Her office regularly conflicts with legislators - including many Republicans - over her implementation of state statute, a dynamic she's chalked up to political differences. But she's also earned the endorsement of several members of Montana's state legislative Freedom Caucus.

"This is a political persecution," Arntzen wrote in a letter to lawmakers after a particularly scathing hearing earlier this year. "I am being attacked because I am a conservative. I stood up for limited bureaucracy, fought the radical transgender agenda, opposed woke-ism, promoted good government and delivered results for our children, parents and schools."

For a period last year, the Office of Public Instruction lost its procurement authority after the state Department of Administration identified several issues in its contracting process. In 2021, school administrators from several large districts issued a letter expressing concern about a lack of administrative support from Arntzen's office and her overt partisanship.

And in 2022, she was cited for illegally passing a stopped school bus while its crossing arm was extended. She pleaded no contest.

Arntzen has generally been more willing to cast stones on the campaign trail than her competitors. But her primary opponents have made some pointed remarks. Downing sometimes refers to himself as the only candidate who has had a "successful run at a state agency" and touts his relationship with lawmakers.

Arntzen, for her part, empasizes her local roots.

"I know that in visiting people, they want to make sure that the individual that's representing them in that huge congressional conference is someone that will protect those traditional values and understands those traditional values," she said. "I'm not from California, and I'm not someone who was a lobbyist before, and will make sure that every vote that I cast will have Montana front in mind."

DENNY REHBERG

"Trump doesn't always say it the right way," Rehberg told MTFP. "But he breaks glass, and I want to be part of the next four years. And what we don't need is a congressman in training."

Rehberg, who launched his House campaign in February just before Rosendale dropped out, has been there and done that. He represented Montana's at-large House district from 2001 to 2013. Before that, he was a lieutenant governor to two different Republican governors, a state lawmaker and a staffer for Congressman Ron Marlenee.

Over that time, he said, he's realized he's not an executive-branch type, an attorney or judge, or a CEO. He is a creature of legislative habit.

"I'm a coalition builder of like-minded people trying to create a majority to pass legislation," he told MTFP.

A member of the House Appropriations Committee for much of his congressional career, Rehberg said he wants to help advance Trump's agenda in Congress and that he has the built-in seniority to start moving the needle in important committees the minute he gets to Congress.

"I want to be a part of the opportunity to try and turn [the Department of Homeland Security], [Department of Defense], and the [Department of the Interior] around after this president" - Biden - "has destroyed, I think, our future," he said.

Since leaving Congress, Rehberg, a member of a multi-generational ranching and politics family from near Billings, has been a co-chair of D.C. public affairs firm Mercury. His other enterprises include fast food franchises, real estate development and raising cashmere goats.

His opponents have largely steered clear of the issues that followed him in previous campaigns. In 2009, Rehberg was on a boat piloted by an intoxicated former state Sen. Greg Barkus that crashed into rocks on the shore of Flathead Lake, injuring Rehberg and several members of his staff. A few years earlier, D.C. outlet Roll Call reported that Rehberg got drunk drinking ceremonial shots on a junket to Kazakhstan and fell off a horse.

In 2010, his company sued the city of Billings, alleging that firefighters failed to protect the Rehberg Ranch Estates subdivision from a wildfire and demanding compensation from the city. He eventually dropped the lawsuit.

Other candidates have mostly taken aim at Rehberg precisely because has has already been there and done that.

"Rehberg has passed his time," Downing told MTFP. "I think he was a Republican from a different era. He would be rudely awakened to how different the party is now."

In this campaign, Rehberg has publicly supported gutting federal agencies and halting government spending as much as any other candidate. He's praised Trump. But he was a congressman tasked with crafting budgets at a time when practices like earmarks were much more common - a fact that's provided fodder to Arntzen.

"Denny Rehberg spent his time in Congress acting like a Democrat by refusing to stand for conservative values and voting for massive overspending of our taxpayer dollars," she said on X when he launched his campaign.

Rehberg said his politics haven't changed "one iota."

"My family got here in 1863. So I'm fifth generation. My grandchildren on the same ranch are seventh generation. I don't have to defend my philosophy. I haven't changed."

He's not bothered by Arntzen calling him, for example, "Liz Cheney with a mustache." While he didn't name Downing, he said he's more offended by someone "rolling in from California" and claiming to be an expert.

"I had a conversation with somebody today that's retired," he told MTFP last week. "I'm 68. I said, 'What do you do when you retire? Do you drive a bus?' I don't get it. I'm not gonna compare myself to George Washington or anyone else, but I don't understand why you quit being involved in public service until you're dead."

THE FIELD

2024 MT-02 candidates for U.S. House

REPUBLICANS

Elsie Artnzen, state superintendent of public instruction

Kyle Austin, Billings pharmacist

Ken Bogner, state senator

Troy Downing, state auditor

Ric Holden, former state senator

Joel Krautter, former state representative

Denny Rehberg, former U.S. congressman

Stacy Zinn, former Drug Enforcement Administration official

DEMOCRATS

Ming Cabrera, Billings resident

John Driscoll, Former public service commissioner

Kevin Hamm, Helena resident

Steve Held, Broadus resident

See all 2024 candidates on MTFP's 2024 election guide.

"As the old saying goes, money is the mother's milk of politics," Essmann told MTFP.

Of the several Republicans in the primary, only Downing, Arntzen and Rehberg have raised more than $100,000, though each has also loaned their campaigns substantial sums. Downing and Arntzen have each flooded the internet with ads. And as much as the party faithful like to attend Lincoln Reagan dinners, Essmann said, most voters make contact with candidates through paid advertising.

But there's still a robust field outside of the top three fundraisers, and campaign finance tells only part of the story. A Super PAC that supports Downing commissioned a poll that showed Downing leading the pack followed by Rehberg and then not Arntzen, but former Drug Enforcement Agency official Stacy Zinn. (Montana, it should be said, is notoriously hard to poll accurately.)

"The open southern and northern borders and the national debt are tied [as the utmost critical issues]," she told MTFP in a recent candidate survey. "Border: Uphold the laws. National debt: Stop the spending. These are the two issues the voters have conveyed to me that keep them up at night."

Candidates like Ric Holden, a former state lawmaker from Glendive, are campaigning largely on their farmer-rancher identities. State Sen. Ken Bogner, of Miles City, says he's the only candidate who's fought in Afghanistan and crafted policy in the Legislature.

Former state Rep. Joel Krautter, who was ousted by a hardline primary challenger in 2020, is the only anti-Trump Republican in the mix. He's announced the endorsements of labor unions, independents and old-guard Republicans like former Gov. Marc Racicot.

"I don't think all of the anger, division, dysfunctionality and chaos is getting anything done," he told MTFP. "I'm making that case out on the campaign trail, and I think in a divided primary I'm going to try to build a coalition of common-sense people."

Others are clear about having their eyes on other offices. Kyle Austin, a Billings pharmacist, said he wants to get his foot in the door before eventually seeking the governorship or a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Rosendale aside, only one candidate in the primary field, former state senator Ed Walker, has suspended his campaign. In April, he said he hoped others would follow suit and consolidate around an unnamed single candidate, "ensuring Montana's eastern district is not represented by a Bush-era retread or a California phony in perpetuity."

But with less than a month until the primary and mailed ballots already on kitchen tables, it seems the field is locked.

"The observant political science professors in Montana usually made the point that successful statewide candidates had generally been unsuccessful statewide candidates before," Essmann said. "You don't win one until you've already lost one."

See original story at: https://montanafreepress.org/2024/05/14/the-gop-scrum-for-montanas-eastern-us-house-district/

 

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