In a small room at the back of a historic hotel in Whitehall, Republican Matt Rosendale told a crowd of about 30 people he’s not worried about a Democratic groundswell this election cycle.
“I keep telling folks, the only blue wave I think is going to blow ashore is going to be in Hawaii somewhere,” Rosendale said. “We got a red wave coming through here.”
Dressed in an MSU Bobcat polo, the U.S. Senate hopeful and current State Auditor made his way around a large conference table, shaking hands and chatting with former fellow state legislators.
He stressed many of the big themes of his campaign to the group, telling them he has worked as a businessman, a rancher and a state legislator. He said he wants to minimize government spending and “release the potential of the state.”
It’s a potential he said helped draw him to the state 16 years ago. The Maryland native said he relocated to the small, eastern Montana town of Glendive because it fit a checklist he made that included good education options for his three sons and good hunting opportunities for himself.
When he settled in the state following a career as a real estate developer, he said he had no intention of joining politics.
“I was spending my time in Glendive, really, just ranching, I was very content and just chasing cows around and riding horses, but the community came to me and encouraged me to represent them in the legislature,” Rosendale said.
That ranching claim has become a battleground unto itself. The Tester campaign released an ad claiming it filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found that Rosendale has never owned cattle. Rosendale then changed the word “rancher” to “Trump Conservative” in his twitter bio and his official website clarifies he has spent time helping his neighbors brand and herd cattle.
Back at the Whitehall event local resident Kristine Mather did not care to hear about the ranching issue or about the president, but said she wanted to know more about Rosendale. She said the advertisements for the candidate seem to be focused on national issues and the current administration.
“I would like to see him introduce issues more germane to Montana,” Mather said.
But Rosendale’s campaign message is often tied to national politics and President Trump, who won Montana by more than 20 points in 2016.
The snack plate of cookies and conversations about Montana issues of the Whitehall event came only a week after a very different rally 250 miles to the east. The second visit by President Trump to Montana to help Rosendale drew thousands of supporters and spectators to the MetraPark Rimrock Auto Arena.
Trump introduced Rosendale and told the audience to vote for the State Auditor because he’ll support the president’s agenda, and work to strengthen Social Security and Medicare.
Although he is leaning heavily on the president to help him win this fall, Rosendale said there are limits to his support of the president, saying, “I will always put the interests of Montana first.”
Still, many of the issues he has focused on resonate from the national debates in D.C., including Sen. Tester’s opposition to Trump-appointed judges and the fate of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Tester, meanwhile, has touted his focus on Montana while raising some $11 million for his re-election.
But tough political fights are not new for the 58-year-old Rosendale. When he ran for the legislature in 2010 he had to beat a Democratic incumbent. He was elected to the senate two years later and then two years after that took on now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a hard-fought primary for the U.S. House seat. During his time in the legislature, Republican Rep. Nancy Ballance of Hamilton worked with Rosendale and she said he really dug into topics and bucked the system when needed.
“He is a bulldog when it comes to issues he feels strongly about,” Ballance said.
Rosendale served as Senate majority leader in the 2015 session. Republicans saw a major rift in their party that session over the expansion of Medicaid. After Republican leaders lost the battle over Medicaid, Rosendale and another legislator filed a lawsuit to close primary elections in an attempt, opponents claimed, to defeat moderate Republicans who had voted to expand Medicaid.
Now, he wants to take that hard-fighting conservatism to the U.S. Senate and between the small meetings like in Whitehall and the mega rallies with the president, he feels the momentum building.
“We do have a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the Republican Party right now, to elect good conservative individuals to represent us,” Rosendale said.