Montana U.S. Senate race a possible "toss-up," say analysts

U.S. Capitol MTN
Posted at 6:44 PM, Dec 01, 2023

HELENA — We’re just over a month away from the official start of Montana’s 2024 election filing period, and the state’s most watched race – for U.S. Senate – is still taking shape.

When Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, announced last month he wasn’t running for reelection, that made Sen. Jon Tester’s 2024 race what some national analysts have called the toughest for any incumbent Democrat senator across the country.

This week, the Cook Political Report, a national political forecaster, announced it was shifting its analysis of the race from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss Up.”

Cook said their initial rating was based largely on the possibility of a Republican primary that would divide the party and potentially lead to a weaker nominee to challenge Tester. They said it was still possible there would be a heated primary between businessman and Navy veteran Tim Sheehy and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale – if Rosendale decides to jump in the race, as has been expected.

However, the article described Sheehy as a strong candidate so far, with backing from state Republican leaders like Gov. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines – who’s chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee as it campaigns to win a GOP Senate majority. It also said Sheehy’s heavy advertising campaign appears to have boosted him in the eyes of voters, citing two recent polls his campaign publicized – one from a former pollster for President Donald Trump and one from a GOP polling firm – showing him with a lead in a potential race with Rosendale.

The redesignation comes despite Tester reportedly maintaining strong approval ratings in Montana. This week, the firm Morning Consult published a report that Tester holds 61% approval in the state – the fourth highest out of all 100 senators in their results.

The Cook article acknowledged Tester has been able to outperform Democratic presidential candidates in Montana, but said political trends nationwide have made it harder to outrun the top of the ticket. Tester’s now one of just five senators in the country from the opposite party of their state’s winning presidential candidate in 2020.

Tester’s campaign said in a statement that they’re ready for a hard-fought race.

“Jon's no stranger to tough fights, and this election will be no different,” said Shelbi Dantic, Montanans for Tester campaign manager. “Montanans of all political stripes support Jon Tester – including independents and Republicans – because they know Jon will take on anyone to do what's best for Montana.”

Sheehy’s campaign put out a news release highlighting the Cook “Toss Up” designation. They touted it and the recent poll results as signs of his strength.

“Tim Sheehy's lead in the potential primary matchup highlights that Montanans want to elect a political outsider who can bring a new generation of conservative leadership and finally defeat Jon Tester next year,” the release said. “It's clear that Tim's message on the airwaves showcasing his military leadership as a former Navy SEAL and businessman and aerial firefighter is resonating with Republican primary voters in Montana.”

Though Rosendale still hasn’t announced a Senate run, he’s described Sheehy as a candidate of Washington insiders.

“Cook Report just changed this race to a tossup,” said Aashka Varma, a spokesperson for Rosendale. “If the NRSC shifted its resources to exposing Tester as a reliable vote for Schumer instead of dismissing the choice of Montana voters, this race would already be listed as a likely Republican seat. This is precisely why the GOP continues to be in the minority in the Senate.”

Former Montana Secretary of State and Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson is also running for the Republican nomination for Senate.

Montana’s candidate filing period begins on Jan. 11 and closes on March 11, so that is the time Rosendale and any other potential candidates will have to make their final decision.