‘Establishment Vs. Grassroots’: Montana Conservatives Balk At Republican Leadership’s Senate Pick For 2024


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Mary Lou Masters Contributor
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  • Montana Republicans voiced frustration to the Daily Caller News Foundation about political newcomer and former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy for being what they view as the D.C. establishment’s Senate candidate.
  • The state’s conservatives questioned how a candidate with no elected experience could beat Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester in 2024, and told the DCNF they’d rather see GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale vie for the seat.
  • “For the grassroots movement, and people who knock doors and put up the signs and are busy for conservative Republican candidates, we have no idea who Tim Sheehy is — it’s ‘Sheehy who?'” Dr. Al Olszewski, chairman of the Flathead County GOP, told the DCNF. “He’s a ghost, he has not been involved in local politics or statewide politics.”

As prominent national Republicans line up behind a political newcomer and decorated veteran as their pick to win back a coveted Senate seat in 2024, grassroots Montana conservatives are frustrated with what they perceive as unwelcome outside influence attempting to sway the primary race.

National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman Steve Daines of Montana and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recruited Tim Sheehy, who quickly secured endorsements from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte and several other senators since his late June campaign launch. However, Montana Republicans and grassroots activists who spoke to the Daily Caller News Foundation view Sheehy as the D.C. establishment’s candidate and would rather see GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale run for the seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

“You’ve got really ultimately establishment vs. grassroots in Sheehy and Rosendale,” Darin Gaub, co-founder of Restore Liberty and Montana state director at the Freedom Caucus Network, told the DCNF.

“We know that [Rosendale’s] gonna stand up and fight for Montana and the people regardless of what’s going on in D.C., and that I can respect and that’s proven,” Gaub said.

Along with the backing of Senate leadership, Gianforte and Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, Sheehy received endorsements from Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Eric Schmitt of Missouri, Cindy Hyde Smith of Mississippi, Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and Ted Budd of North Carolina.

The NRSC is focused on courting more moderate Republicans in swing states in 2024, citing losses in the 2022 midterms with more conservative candidates. Mike Berg, NRSC communications director, pointed to Rosendale’s 2018 loss to Tester by 3.5 points, and argued Sheehy has the ability to win the seat next year.

“Unfortunately, Montana voters rejected Matt Rosendale in 2018 and gave Jon Tester over 50% of the vote for the first time during his long career in politics,” Berg said. “Conservatives in Montana and around the country are rallying around Tim’s candidacy because of his support for America First policies and because they want to win back the Senate in 2024.”

Tester has held the Senate seat for over a decade, but with Montana trending more red since his last election, Republicans have a chance to unseat him. The Cook Political Report characterizes Tester’s seat in the “Lean D” category, along with four other Senate races.

Sheehy is a former Navy SEAL who fought in Afghanistan before starting an aerial firefighting business and ranching operation in Montana. Rosendale has yet to officially throw his hat into the 2024 Senate race, but his office is already firing back at the GOP establishment for backing Sheehy.

“This is an attempt by McConnell and the DC cartel to dismiss the voters of Montana,” Rosendale’s Deputy Chief of Staff Aashka Varma told the DCNF.

Montana conservatives who oppose Sheehy argue that, among other things, he lacks name recognition and political experience in the state.

“For the grassroots movement, and people who knock doors and put up the signs and are busy for conservative Republican candidates, we have no idea who Tim Sheehy is — it’s ‘Sheehy who?'” Dr. Al Olszewski, chairman of the Flathead County GOP, told the DCNF. “He’s a ghost, he has not been involved in local politics or statewide politics.”

Multiple Montana conservatives argued that since Rosendale is more well-known in the state now and has a proven record in Congress, he’d have a better chance at beating Tester next year than he did in 2018.

Rosendale would beat Sheehy in a potential primary matchup by over 50 points, according to a late June survey from the liberal firm Public Policy Polling (PPP). The most recent polling on a 2024 general election between Rosendale and Tester has the GOP congressman up five points.

“Rosendale is widely popular with GOP voters in the state, with 67% viewing him favorably and just 17% unfavorably,” the PPP survey indicates. “At 10% favorable, 14% unfavorable[,] Sheehy has only a nominally greater profile than a name out of the phone book.”

“What we’ve got right now is an unknown who appears to be 1) either trying to buy a seat, 2) heavily endorsed by the establishment in D.C., regardless of the fact that some of them aren’t Montanans, like McConnell,” Gaub told the DCNF.

Several Montana conservatives, like state Sen. Dan Bartel, criticized Daines for tapping a longshot to go up against Tester when they already have a viable potential contender with Rosendale. (RELATED: Red State Gov Picks His Candidate To Unseat Dem Senator)

“I’m personally disappointed that Daines has thrown his full support behind Sheehy without really explaining about Matt Rosendale, and kind of leaving him in the dust,” Cheryl Tusken, an active grassroots organizer in Montana, told the DCNF.

“I would rather see him running and having that position in the Senate because I feel like Matt Rosendale really stands behind Montanans and he really understands what we want and what we need,” Tusken said.

GREAT FALLS, MT – JULY 05: President Trump looks on as Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Matt Rosendale speaks during a campaign rally. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Rosendale was a member of both chambers of Montana’s state Legislature prior to his time as state auditor from 2017 to 2021. The congressman secured his U.S. House seat in 2020 by nearly 13 points and was overwhelmingly elected to a second term in 2022 by over 30 points.

The House Freedom Caucus member was one of the 20 Republicans who opposed Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid in January, which won plaudits from many Montana conservatives. This, activists argue, shows Rosendale is willing to buck the party establishment.

Nearly all of the Montana activists and operatives who spoke to the DCNF also characterized Sheehy as a “war hawk,” citing his previous stance on the war in Ukraine. Sheehy’s social media posts from last year resurfaced where he called for intervention and “soldiers, planes, bombs and bullets” for Ukraine.

The former Navy SEAL’s aerial firefighting business Bridger Aerospace gets most of its money from government contracts to the tune of $87.6 million since 2014, according to Bloomberg Government.

Sheehy recently called for an end to U.S. intervention in the Ukraine war, and argued the country should instead focus its attention on the economy and the immigration crisis, he told Montana Talks radio.

Tusken argued that Sheehy’s change of opinion on the war indicates that “he’s not necessarily a man of principle” and is “willing to take whatever message he’s told to send out.”

Sheehy, McConnell and Gianforte did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

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