Editor’s Note: This story is part of MTN’s on-going series on statewide contested primary election races. Ballots will be mailed Friday, May 8.
Montana’s open U.S. House seat has attracted six Republicans trying to succeed incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte – and the conventional wisdom is that state Auditor Matt Rosendale is the one to beat in this crowded GOP field.
Rosendale has raised $1.3 million for his campaign, or eight times his nearest rival, he’s been endorsed by President Trump and is getting help from the conservative Club for Growth.
Yet his rivals argue that he’s a flawed candidate, who lost a 2018 U.S. Senate race to Democrat Jon Tester despite considerable campaign assistance from the president.
Joe Dooling, a Helena farmer-rancher and one of the five other candidates, echoed the message that all of Rosendale’s GOP opponents are pitching, as he talked about his campaign fundraiser earlier this year involving 400 tickets to win a rifle.
“One-hundred dollars (a ticket) gives you one-chance-in-400 to win the gun, which is better odds than any of my opponents have of beating (Democrat) Kathleen Williams in November,” he said.
Dooling and his fellow GOP hopefuls, largely unknown to voters, are hoping that a six-way race and the unusual circumstances of the election – an all-mail ballot, in the midst of a pandemic – could be a recipe for an upset.
Rosendale, however, doesn’t sound worried, and said he’s been concentrating mostly on doing his job as state insurance commissioner, ensuring that the public has access to affordable coverage and health care during the Covid-19 outbreak.
“I am thoroughly convinced that as long as I do a good job at the office that the people of Montana elected me for, that they will continue to give me the support that they have previously, and push me forward as the nominee for United State Congress,” he told MTN News.
Rosendale recently started running TV ads showing him with President Trump, touting his conservative credentials – and, two weeks ago skipped the only broadcast debate among the Republican primary candidates.
The other Republicans in the race are Dooling, Butte electrician John Evankovich, former state Republican Party chair Debra Lamm, National Guard veteran and youth counselor Mark McGinley and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.
Stapleton, the only other candidate who’s run statewide before, is hoping his status as a statewide officeholder and military veteran give him a leg up that other hopefuls won’t have.
“In times of trouble, I think that people look for someone who’s stable, and someone who’s served before, and military veterans listening to this will understand this,” he said. “I’m just trying to hold out to people that what I bring to this -- experience, stability, service.”
Yet while Stapleton raised considerable campaign money out of the gate a year ago, he’s raised only $58,000 in the past nine months and hasn’t mounted much of a visible campaign.
He also said he’s been tied up doing the job of secretary of state, Montana’s chief election officer, as the office deals with the state’s first all-mail election and other election issues.
Dooling has outraised all of the candidates besides Rosendale in the past nine months, yet still faces an uphill climb in making himself known to the average voter.
He’s been reaching out to contacts in the agricultural community, telling people that he has no ambition beyond congressman, and emphasizing his down-home appeal, handing out his personal cell number for people to call.
“If I’m elected, you guys are my bosses, and I want my boss to call me if he has an issue,” Dooling said. “Just give me a jingle; you’ll catch me on the tractor.”
Lamm, an attorney from Livingston, said she’s running a “grassroots” campaign and noting her past background in health care and as an advocate for the elderly and children.
“I’ve always been a problem-solver, without the government doing everything,” she said. “And I’m the one candidate who can eliminate the gender issue (against Williams) and allow voters to concentrate on the serious issues we face, and the policy differences.”
McGinley, a counselor at the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon, got into the race late, but has waged a fairly extensive social-media campaign, arguing that he has the best personal story and job background of any Republican candidate.
“I believe I am the best candidate to represent Montana because of the depth and the breadth resume,” he said. “I think I’m competitive (in the race).”
McGinley is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Montana National Guard and a former teacher and college instructor, has served on a local school board, and grew up in a ranch family.
Evankovich, who’s run a minimal campaign, is a union electrician from Butte who’s said he could bring organized labor into the Republican fold.
But can any of these five compete with Rosendale for the nomination?
Rosendale said he thinks by the time ballots go out this week, the vast majority of voters will have already made up their minds – and that he’s confident voters will see that he’s been doing the job of auditor, keeping insurance available for people during these times of crisis.