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Crowded field of Republicans vie to replace Rosendale

by ARREN KIMBEL-SANNIT Montana Free Press
| April 16, 2024 12:00 AM

The crowded Republican primary contest to replace retiring Congressman Matt Rosendale in Montana’s Eastern District U.S. House race is continuing to take shape.

Last Friday, former state lawmaker Ed Walker announced the suspension of his campaign, bringing the number of Republicans running in the primary down to eight. 

“After careful consideration, reflective prayer, and discussions with my family, I have made the difficult decision to suspend my campaign for Congress,” Walker said in a written statement. “I entered this race back in October, intent on ensuring that Montana’s 2nd congressional seat remained in conservative Republican hands, and that will continue to be my objective. Between Rep. Rosendale’s indecision about his own candidacy and the overly crowded primary field, it has been difficult for a grassroots conservative candidate to gain any traction in this race.”

Rosendale spent much of last year gearing up for a U.S. Senate run only to abort the effort just six days after announcing his campaign. He then said he would run for re-election to the House, where he is a prominent member of the hardline Freedom Caucus.  A few days after that announcement, he withdrew from the House race, citing threats against his family and “false and defamatory rumors” about his personal life.

Walker closed out 2023 with about $74,000 in his campaign treasury. Fundraising data for the first quarter of 2024 is not yet available from the Federal Election Commission. 

Walker served in the state Senate in 2011 and 2013. He’s currently the state chairman of an organization that advocates for federal term limits. 

In his announcement, Walker encouraged other candidates to follow his lead, drop out of the race and “consolidate support around a single conservative champion, thus ensuring Montana’s eastern district is not represented by a Bush-era retread or a California phony in perpetuity.”

Walker’s announcement didn’t name his choice of conservative champion in the race.

The former dig appears to target candidate Denny Rehberg, who represented Montana’s single at-large district from 2001 to 2013, while the latter is apparently aimed at Troy Downing, Montana’s current state auditor, who is originally from California. 

Elsewhere in the race, former state lawmaker Joel Krautter — one of the few candidates in the field not actively courting favor with the GOP’s Trump wing — announced this weekend an endorsement by the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the state’s largest union. 

“MFPE members know what efficient, effective government looks like,” MFPE President Amanda Curtis said during an event with Krautter, according to an April 6 press release. “We look at Congress and we see historic dysfunction. MFPE members need stability in Washington, D.C. so we can do our jobs keeping Montana communities safe, our students in school, our businesses supported, and our families healthy.”

The union could theoretically endorse a different candidate, or a different party, in the general election, but the eastern district leans deeply Republican, making it difficult for Democrats to win, and likely that the victor of the GOP primary will go on to claim the seat.

In 2022, MFPE — a union typically regarded as supportive of Democrats — endorsed wealth manager Gary Buchanan, an independent, in the second district, though that endorsement came after the primary. 

“I’m honored to have the support of thousands of public employees across Eastern Montana. MFPE members are the law enforcement officers protecting us, the educators and professors teaching our kids, and other dedicated individuals keeping our communities going,” Krautter said in a statement. “With their support in the June 4th Republican Primary that will determine eastern and central Montana’s next U.S. Representative, I’ll go to Congress and work to crush the chaos negatively impacting our nation and our state.”

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is a reporter for the Montana Free Press, a Helena-based nonprofit newsroom, and can be reached at akimbel@montanafreepress.org.