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

AMY BETH HANSON and

MATTHEW BROWN

The Associated Press

HELENA — Three-term incumbent Democratic 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.

Montana voters also were selecting candidates for an open U.S. House seat being vacated by far-right conservative Rep. Matt Rosendale. State Auditor and Insurance Commissioner Troy Downing won the Republican primary, while former state lawmaker and public service commissioner John Driscoll won the Democratic nomination.

Gianforte also easily won his primary as he seeks a second term in the governor's office.

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.

Sheehy said after his win that he was humbled and honored for all the support in the primary.

"America is at a crossroads and we need a new generation of leaders to save our country," Sheehy said in a statement that repeated all the GOP talking points for the 2024 elections.

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.

"This race will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which is insane," Tester said in an interview on MSNBC. Sheehy said the campaign was "going to be the most expensive race in American history per vote."

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.

In an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday night, Tester said he would run on his record of passing legislation in support of military veterans and working to get rural residents connected to broadband.

"I have been told over and over again that I am one of the most effective senators in the United States Senate and one of the most bipartisan senators," Tester told Lawrence O'Donnell.

"There will be a lot of money put into this race, trying to make me something I am not, so they can run against that person because they know they can't beat the Jon Tester who is a third-generation farmer from Montana," Tester said.

Sheehy said his opponents are "going to dump $200 million in the state to stop us from winning this election. We're not going to let that happen. We have to save America."

What Americans want from their government is common sense, Sheehy told supporters.

"They want a secure border. Safe streets. Cheap gas. Cops are good. Criminals are bad. Boys are boys. Girls are girls," he said.

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

Those facing off against Downing included former six-term former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg 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. If he is elected in November, he said he would not join the House Freedom Caucus as Rosendale has.

In a phone call Tuesday night, Downing said his key issues include dealing with the southern border and reining in federal spending.

"We spend ourselves out of that American dream," he said. "I worry about our kids even being able to buy their first homes."

He said he would "continue working hard, showing up and making sure that we bring a victory in November."

Driscoll prevailed over three other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the district, but 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 fought off a primary challenge 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, ran unopposed in the western House district primary.

Gianforte is seeking reelection 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 fought off 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 won against Helena attorney Jim Hunt.

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Brown reported from Billings, Montana.

 

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