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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Tensions flare in Trump world over Montana’s GOP Senate primary

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 acrimony — threaten to undermine Rosendale’s campaign before it even officially starts.

Many party leaders are lined up behind Tim Sheehy in what is likely to be one of the toughest 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 big margins.

Rosendale, 63, has signaled he plans to enter the race soon, though external dynamics are already shaping the June 4 primary. Democrats have run ads attacking Sheehy, 38, while ignoring Rosendale, triggering suspicions from Sheehy’s backers at the National Republican Senatorial Committee that Democrats are meddling in hopes of drawing a weaker opponent. The race represents an early test of the NRSC’s strategy this cycle of handpicking candidates in certain states in an effort to avoid chaotic primaries and produce more electable nominees.

And while it’s not certain Trump will directly involve himself in Montana’s primary, frustrations with Rosendale are filtering out through the former president’s aides and even his eldest son.

“Obviously there’s this bloodbath that’s about to play out,” said one strategist close to Trump’s team. “But I think the undercurrent is that Rosendale has a clear Trump world problem that may reach to the highest level of Trump world as he enters this race.”

Rosendale has his own 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 large right-wing audience.

But friction between Rosendale and the former president dates to Rosendale’s loss to Tester in 2018, despite Trump’s endorsement and victories by other GOP Senate candidates that year 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 pivotal moment came in December at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where Rosendale, who was there for a fundraiser, approached the former president as he passed through a lobby in golf attire for an impromptu photo that the congressman shared on social media.

Trump advisers considered it an ambush, according to four sources familiar with the encounter, including three who are close to Trump world. And they were particularly incensed about what they saw as Rosendale’s attempt to project a close relationship without offering an endorsement. Rosendale announced his support three days later. A source close to the congressman maintained that the meeting with Trump was cordial and a coincidence.

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.”

In a subsequent interview, Bruesewitz said he was told that the state party’s executive committee members “were getting too much heat, too much pressure.” Officials with the Montana GOP did not respond to several requests for comment. Rosendale has said he is unfamiliar with Bruesewitz and denied pushing to disinvite him.

A source close to Trump Jr. said he “doesn’t have any plans to get more involved publicly in this primary, but if Rosendale and his allies continue attacking Don’s friends, that will change pretty quickly.”

And while the Bruesewitz snub might seem small, two Trump world sources said Rosendale should worry about handing Trump an early excuse to endorse Sheehy, who backed Trump months before Rosendale did and campaigned for him last month in Iowa.

“I just think he’s a disaster,” Bruesewitz said of Rosendale. “I think he’s going to lose that seat. The general consensus in Trump world from folks I’ve talked to is that we want Matt to stay in the House.”

Democrats are eager to exploit a messy primary. The Montana-focused Last Best Place PAC, funded exclusively by Majority Forward, which is 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.

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.”

Money could be an obstacle for Rosendale. His House campaign, which can be tapped for a Senate bid, reported raising less than $100,000 last quarter — a sum that raised questions about how seriously he is taking the prospect of an expensive primary and general election.

And one potential contribution could trigger more blowback from Trump. A PAC associated with Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican who has been at odds with the former president, is planning to cut a check to Rosendale’s campaign after being approached, a source familiar with the donation said.

Rosendale entered 2024 with slightly more cash on hand than Sheehy. But Sheehy, who founded an aerial firefighting company, has already loaned his campaign $950,000 and has shown more proficiency than Rosendale in raising money from individual donors. 

“We’re going to be outspent,” a source familiar with Rosendale’s campaign preparations said. “I think Rosendale is beloved on the ground. … I think Trump is going to stay out of it.”

Rosendale, meanwhile, is accentuating his friendships with big Trump-friendly personalities like Gaetz and Bannon. His “Truth Tour” with Gaetz last month included parts of the state that Rosendale doesn’t represent, previewing a Senate run.

“I’ll confess that I have an ulterior motive to be on this tour because nothing would send a shock to the corrupt system in Washington, D.C., more than parachuting Matt Rosendale into the United States Senate,” Gaetz said at one event, NBC Montana reported.

On a recent podcast, Bannon described Sheehy’s backing from Daines and the NRSC as a potential red flag for GOP primary voters.

“The patriots in Montana are not going to tolerate a Mitch McConnell clone,” Bannon said, referring to the Senate GOP leader from Kentucky. “Steve Daines is an enemy of MAGA. … Anybody in Mitch McConnell’s inner circle is an enemy of President Trump, an enemy of MAGA.”

But Gaetz’s zeal and Bannon’s microphone might not be enough if Trump’s antipathy continues.

“Nobody wants Rosendale more than the Democrats spending millions to nominate their preferred opponent whom Tester already beat,” said John Ashbrook, a GOP strategist with close ties to McConnell.

“Unfortunately for them,” Ashbrook added, Rosendale refused to take that call from Trump, and he and his allies are now being blamed for a Bruesewitz’s speech being canceled.

It amounts to a declaration of “war against MAGA,” Ashbrook concluded. “All before entering the race.”

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