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Government & Politics

Montana GOP Senate Candidates Face Off In First Primary Debate

Jackie Yamanaka

Montana’s 4 Republican U.S. Senate candidates pointed out the differences among each other, albeit in a collegial way, during their first debate last night in Bozeman. The event was sponsored by the College Republicans at Montana State University.

Troy Downing, Russ Fagg, Al Olszewski, and Matt Rosendale are vying for the Republican primary nomination. The winner will face-off against incumbent Democrat Jon Tester on the November 6, 2018 general election ballot.

Retired state district Judge Russ Fagg of Billings said he is the only one among the GOP field who has sentenced illegal immigrants and sent them back to their home country, adding he believes in a merit based immigration system as a path to citizenship. 

Later he touted being a 4th generation Montanan.

“And the reason that’s important, I appreciate everyone who has moved to Montana because they love Montana, but the Democrats are going to unmercifully beat up two of my opponents because they moved here 9 years ago and 15 years ago,” Fagg said. “It may not be fair, but it’s the truth.”

It’s a reference to Matt Rosendale, whom the Montana Democrats have dubbed “Maryland Matt.” It’s also a reference to Troy Downing who has a court date two weeks before the primary election to face charges of trying to buy Montana resident hunting or fishing licenses as an out-of-state resident.

Downing called the allegations a clear attack from the left.

“This is clearly an orchestrated attack,” said Downing, adding it’s never been a problem until became a candidate. “I plan on fighting it and I will win this.”

Downing has been facing questions about whether his residence is San Diego or Big Sky. The businessman said Montana. Downing says when he went to getting his hunting and fishing licenses he did what every other Montanan does.

“I left my Montana home. I got in my Montana car with my Montana registration. I took my Montana Driver’s license and I bought my Montana fishing license. The thought that I would try to save 50 bucks on a fishing license is ludicrous,” he said.

Throughout the debate, Downing repeatedly said he is the only one among the GOP Senate candidates who is a combat veteran. He said that gives him a unique understanding of veterans issues, the military and national security. He added he’s the only one on the stage who has had international business dealings.

Current state Senator and doctor Al Olszewski of Kalispell is also a veteran, having served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force as a trauma surgeon. The Great Falls native has said that gives him a unique perspective to fix the nation’s health care system.

Olszewski said he also has expertise in pulse crops, has worked to restrict abortions, and is working to reform Child Protection Services in the Legislature.

He said that appeals  to independent Montana voters, “The 40% that will make the decision who beats Jon Tester, or not.”

“So I’m telling you if you want to dance with somebody, because I believe you dance with who brought you, well I’m the only guy up here who’s not dancing with the Washington establishment, the old guard of Montana,” said Olszewski.

A reference to Fagg’s comment that he has endorsements from former Montana Republican politicians or Rosendale’s mention that he met with members of Congress and has the endorsement of former Trump Administration advisor Steve Bannon or U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Rosendale touted his experience. The former state legislator said as the current state Auditor he has carried out core Republican values as the state Commissioner of Insurance and Securities by reducing government regulations, addressing heath care, and protecting property rights as a member of the state land board.

And he injected some humor into the debate, “In November of this year, the people of Montana are going to elect someone to the United States Senate and he’s going to have a flat top.”

“The only question is whether it’s going to be Jon Tester, who supports Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, or whether it’s going to be Matt Rosendale, who represents the people of Montana,” he said.

In all, 8 men are vying for the U.S. Senate Seat. Besides the Republicans and the Democratic incumbent, there are 2 Green Party candidates – Timothy Adams of Three Forks and Steve Kelly of Bozeman - and Libertarian Rick Breckenridge of Dayton.

Montana’s primary election is June 5, 2018.