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On heels of Senate loss, Montana’s Matt Rosendale running for Congress — again

Republican state auditor lost to Sen. Jon Tester by 4 points last fall

Matt Rosendale, Montana state auditor, is running for the state’s at-large House seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Matt Rosendale, the Montana state auditor, announced Monday that he’s seeking the Republican nomination for the state’s at-large House seat. 

Because Montana’s member of Congress represents the whole state, Rosendale will be fighting for the same voters he did last cycle, when he won a four-way GOP primary for Senate and then lost to Democratic incumbent Jon Tester by less than 4 points. The House seat opened after GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte declared a bid for governor. 

“My commitment to give back to Montana has never been stronger,” Rosendale said in a statement Monday. 

“I’ll work with President [Donald] Trump to always Put Montana and America First and will never stop working to make our country and Montana a better place,” he added. Rosendale’s announcement came with a web video that ends with footage of Trump shaking his hand.

Trump’s support for Rosendale — he campaigned for him in Montana several times in the late summer and fall of 2018 — was key to the GOP nominee keeping the Senate race competitive in a state the president carried by 20 points in 2016. Rosendale’s final ads relied heavily on footage of Trump’s Montana rallies.

But Democrats worked to define Rosendale early, and he had a tough time overcoming accusations that he was the less authentic of the two flattop-sporting nominees. They effectively made Rosendale into a foil for Tester, who was running as a longtime Montana farmer, always talking about the fingers he lost in a meat grinder accident when he was kid. 

Rosendale was a real estate developer in Maryland until 2002, when he moved to the Treasure State. He was then elected to the state House in 2010 and the state Senate two years later, where his peers elected him majority leader. 

“I will tell you there’s 262,000 people across this state that have already voted for me, and they really don’t care where I was born,” Rosendale told CQ Roll Call last summer, citing the number of people who voted for him for auditor in 2016.

Beyond the carpetbagging attacks — which some said were less powerful after Gianforte, a New Jersey transplant won the House seat in a 2017 special election — Rosendale’s critics used his land developer background to question his commitment to protecting public lands. 

Rosendale’s role as state insurance commissioner also allowed Democrats to argue that he was signing off on higher health insurance rates, even if he didn’t actually control setting those rates. 

Rosendale tried to make being a rancher a big part of his political identity, and even challenged Tester to a fence-building contest when CQ Roll Call pressed him on whether he had acquired any cattle. A Talking Points Memo investigation had found he didn’t own any. 

A TV ad from the Democratic super PAC Majority Forward featured an actor playing Rosendale, who was wearing white boots while unpacking a saddle from the trunk of a Jaguar and struggling to carry hay. Rosendale slowly walked away from the rancher image, eventually erasing it from his campaign website.

His Monday announcement for House does not describe Rosendale as a rancher or make it a prominent part of his biography. But the bio in his press release but does mention that his family “opens up their ranch to the Glendive community” every year. 

Rosendale has run for this seat before and starts as a very recognizable candidate with GOP voters. He finished third in the GOP primary in 2014, when Ryan Zinke ended up winning the seat. Rosendale’s Maryland roots came up back then, when critics seized on his Baltimore accent. 

The Club for Growth, which supported him in the Senate race last year, conducted polling earlier this year to try to lure him into the House race. The late February survey found that Rosendale had 97 percent name recognition among GOP primary voters, with a favorable rating of 67 percent and unfavorable rating of 17 percent. Rosendale led hypothetical matchups against former Rep. Denny Rehberg and former district judge Russell Fagg, whom he defeated in the Senate primary last year. 

Several Democrats are already running for this seat. But despite winning statewide office at the Senate and gubernatorial level, the House seat has been elusive for Democrats in recent decades. Former state Rep. Kathleen Williams, who’s running again this year, came within 5 points of defeating Gianforte last fall. No Democrat has won the seat since 1994.  

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the at-large race Solid Republican

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