June 14th, 2024

Montana US Sen. Jon Tester to face GOP newcomer Tim Sheehy in election key to Senate control

By Amy Beth Hanson And Matthew Brown, The Associated Press on June 4, 2024.

FILE - U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., leaves the chamber as the Senate prepares to advance the $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan passed by the House, April 23, 2024, at the Capitol in Washington. Montana voters in the primary election, Tuesday, June 4, will select a Republican to challenge Tester in November. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) – Three-term incumbent Democrat Sen. Jon Tester and Republican newcomer Tim Sheehy cruised to victory in Montana’s primary election Tuesday, setting up a contentious November election that could tip the balance of power in the closely divided U.S. Senate.

Sheehy is a former Navy SEAL backed by former President Donald Trump, Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Republican establishment.

Beyond the race’s national implications, it offers Republicans a chance to complete their lock on higher offices in Montana after years of picking off Democratic elected officials in what was once a more politically diverse state.

A loss by Tester, who has survived three close elections even as the national political landscape shifted, would oust the final Democrat still holding high office in Montana.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) – Montana voters in Tuesday’s primary election will select a Republican challenger to three-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and candidates for an open U.S. House seat being vacated by far-right conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale.

Republicans have dominated recent Montana elections, leaving Tester increasingly vulnerable. They need to pick up just a couple seats in November to take control of the U.S. Senate.

Donald Trump’s name appeared on the ballot Tuesday for the first time since his conviction on felony crimes, as a handful of states held the last Republican presidential primary contests of 2024.

In the Senate race in Montana, first-time candidate and former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy has the support of the Republican Party establishment, including former President Trump and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte.

The Belgrade businessman has sunk more than $2 million of his money into the race and is backed by major GOP donors. He faces two lesser known opponents.

On the Democratic side, Tester cruised to victory against a sole primary opponent who had not reported raising or spending any campaign money.

Voter Chris Munson said after casting his ballot in Billings that he’s an independent but voted in the Republican primary because, “It’s the only one that seems to matter in this state.”

Munson, 38, listed inflation and the border as his top policy issues. He expressed reservations about Sheehy, who came to the state a decade ago and is still considered an outsider in Montana, but said he had not yet decided about Tester.

Republican Stephen Reisinger, 54, picked former Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson over Sheehy in Tuesday’s primary.

Reisinger – an Army veteran from Billings who works as a diesel mechanic in the oil fields – cited Sheehy’s acknowledgment that he lied about a bullet wound. Sheehy told a park ranger in 2015 that he was wounded when his personal handgun discharged accidentally in Glacier National Park, but has since said he was wounded in Afghanistan in 2012 and lied to the ranger.

Reisinger said he would push past his concerns about Sheehy lying and support the Republican if he advances to challenge Tester.

“I’d have to go with Sheehy,” he said.

The Tester and Sheehy campaigns already have been pounding each other on the airwaves in an advertising blitz that’s expected to intensify as November approaches.

Tester – a former state Senate president who’s considered a moderate in Washington – has emphasized his work for veterans and his roots as a third-generation farmer in central Montana. He’s also played up concerns that wealthy outsiders such as Sheehy are buying up property and driving housing prices and taxes higher.

Sheehy has sought to saddle Tester with public dissatisfaction over President Joe Biden’s struggles to stem illegal immigration on the southern border. And he’s appealing to supporters of Trump, who won Montana by 16 percentage points in 2020, by claiming in a social media post Monday without providing specifics that Tester supported the former president’s conviction last week in a New York hush money case.

Tester won his three previous Senate races by slim margins.

The open U.S. House seat in solidly Republican, largely rural eastern Montana features a seven-way GOP contest.

Contenders include former six-term former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, state Auditor Troy Downing and state education Superintendent Elsie Arntzen.

Rehberg emerged from retirement and joined the race late after Rosendale launched a short-lived U.S. Senate campaign.

Downing was endorsed by Trump on Monday. He outraised the other primary candidates and touted his experience as auditor and running businesses in the private sector.

Arntzen, among the most conservative of the candidates, has leaned heavily into cultural issues such as her opposition to transgender girls participating in girls’ athletics.

Four candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination in the district. The winner will face long odds in November.

The state’s western House district, which includes the cities of Bozeman, Missoula and Butte, is expected to be more competitive in the general election.

Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, who served as Trump’s interior secretary, is being challenged by Mary Todd from the party’s right flank. Zinke narrowly won his 2022 primary.

Democrat and environmental attorney Monica Tranel, who lost to Zinke by 3 percentage points in 2022, is running unopposed in the western House district primary.

Gianforte is seeking a second term alongside Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, while facing criticism for large property tax increases as property values increased. With a historic budget surplus following federal stimulus spending due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state paid off its debt, reduced the top income tax rate and authorized up to $1,250 in one-time rebates to individual income tax payers.

Gianforte faces a challenge from the right by state Rep. Tanner Smith, who represents part of Flathead County.

In the Democratic primary for governor, former firearms executive Ryan Busse of Kalispell is running against Helena attorney Jim Hunt.

Polls close at 8 p.m. Many voters already have cast their ballots by mail.


Brown reported from Billings, Montana.

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