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Flathead Republicans not completely sold on perceived frontrunner Sheehy

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | March 10, 2024 12:00 AM

Montana's Republican heavyweights have thrown their support behind Bozeman businessman Tim Sheehy as the GOP’s best shot at unseating incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, but not everyone is sold.

“Overall, across the state, what people are communicating to me is that it's still a mixed message. [Some people] are saying, look, we need to consolidate behind Mr. Sheehy in order to go into the general election unified,” said Flathead County Republican Central Committee Chair Al Olszewski. "There is another group of people, of which I'm one, that says, look, Mr. Sheehy still hasn't inspired us.”

Olszewski said he leaned toward throwing his support behind Brad Johnson, a former Montana Secretary of State, past member of the Public Service Commission and one of two Republican challengers left facing Sheehy. 

Olszewski’s shift toward Johnson came after Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale withdrew from the race. Rosendale’s sudden departure forced voters and political insiders to weigh their options, and Sheehy is not always the top choice, Olszewski said. 

Before Sheehy became the GOP’s frontrunner in the Senate race, he served as a Navy SEAL. The Minnesota native and Gallatin County resident owns Bridger Aerospace, which provides aerial firefighting and wildfire management services nationwide. 

That the firm relies heavily on federal contracts — they accounted for about 96% of its total revenue in 2022, according to a March 2023 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission — has already emerged as a point of criticism in the Senate race.

Sheehy, a political newcomer, was recruited by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who is the head of the Senate GOP campaign arm, according to multiple media accounts.

Other prominent Flathead Republicans sought to remain neutral on the question of supporting Sheehy. State Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, who endorsed Rosendale, said that he will support the eventual nominee. 

He downplayed any perceived divide within the party.

“I don't think there's a split, we all take sides just like with our favorite baseball or football team,” Regier said. “We have loyalties. I wouldn't say a split, we just lean toward one or the other.”

Rep. Steve Gunderson, a member of the Montana Freedom Caucus, where a majority of folks supported Rosendale’s bid, declined to offer support to one candidate. He planned to hold out until after the primary, as things always “shake [themselves] out.” 

Others, though, are backing Sheehy because they see him as having the best chance of ousting Tester, a three-term Democrat. Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, supported Sheehy early on because when it comes to the general election, she believes he is best suited to unseat Tester. 

“I just personally feel that Sheehy was the ideal candidate in a general election if we wanted to win,” Sprunger said. 

BRAD JOHNSON, a Helena resident, said he is running to give Republicans an option not handpicked by the Republican establishment. 

He described Sheehy’s recruitment as backroom politics and criticized him for not representing the average Montanan.   

“I am not the only one who resents the heavy tactics of Mitch McConnel and Steve Daines,” Johnson said. “I think that really this is an insight into the McConnell, Daines strategy which is to buy a senate seat in Montana that they can control.” 

Johnson’s platform includes reimposing the border policies enacted under former President Donald Trump and supporting Israel in its war against Hamas. He said he backed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, saying that abortion was a question for the states. 

Though assuming he will be outspent by Sheehy’s campaign, Johnson said he was confident in his ability to run a grassroots campaign against the perceived frontrunner.

“At some level, I hope that people can think about policy issues and not just personalities… it's important to focus on what is good for Montana,” Johnson said. 

From what he has heard of Sheehy’s positions, Johnson said he did not have much to criticize.

The problem is that Montanans have not heard much from Sheehy himself on anything, Johnson said.

Sheehy’s campaign declined an interview this week to discuss his positions and campaign strategy, but a spokesperson told the Inter Lake that Sheehy has been traveling across the state. He made a trip to the Flathead Valley in December, according to the campaign.

Sheehy is anti-abortion, but supports “exeptions in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother.” He supports Israel’s efforts against Hamas and opposes sending more money to Ukraine until the southern border is secure, according to a spokesperson for Sheehy.

“Tim Sheehy believes we need more political outsiders — not more career politicians back in Washington, D.C.,” a spokesperson for Sheehy said in an email. 

Something Montanans deserve, Johnson said, is a public debate between himself and Sheehy. 

“I really hope that we can convince Tim Sheehy to agree to a series of debates, I think that the people of Montana ought to hear directly from us,” Johnson said. “I’ll be honest with you, I don't think Tim Sheehy’s handlers are going to allow him to do that.” 

Sheehy’s office did not respond to inquiries about a future debate. 

THERE IS ONE other Republican who has filed to run for Senate: Charles Walking Child Sr., an Anishinaabe tribal member with Blackfeet heritage, says he is running as “a poor man’s Republican, an original Montanan.”

Walking Child grew up outside of Great Falls and is the former owner of Rising Lightning Environmental Contractors, LLC. This is not Walking Child’s first attempt at representing Montana in Congress. He unsuccessfully squared off against Rosendale in the 2022 Republican primary for the state’s eastern congressional district. 

“I believe that Native Americans should have a voice in what is going on, not these corporate hookers like Rosendale,” Walking Child said this week. “They don’t really care about Montanans, they just play the political game on both sides.” 

Walking Child is focusing on affordable private housing, veterans’ rights and health care, and Native American representation. He, like Johnson, is disappointed in Montana’s Republican heavyweights for supporting Sheehy.

“When this country falls, and if it does, Sheehy’s not going to be here in Montana preparing the people for what is coming,” Walking Child said. 

“Neither is Johnson,” he added.  

DESPITE MISGIVINGS, don’t expect Republicans to stay divided following the primary election, said Jeremy Johnson, a political analyst at Carroll College in Helena.

“Generally speaking, there have been competitive primaries in the past and it at least appears to me that there is not that much of a change in the vote totals in November,” Johnson said. “Most Republicans will vote Republican.” 

For example, Johnson said, it would make more sense for people who originally supported Rosendale to still vote for Sheehy in the November election.

As of this week, Tester is narrowly outperforming Sheehy, according to polling results from Emerson College Polling/The Hill. Tester leads Sheehy 44% to 42%, with 14% undecided. 

For many local legislators, flipping a seat in the upper chamber for a Republican is the ultimate goal. The Republican Party is a big tent, said state Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, but ousting Tester could alter control of the Senate. 

Because the stakes are so high, Republicans will have no choice but to come together behind Sheehy when he wins the primary, Fuller said. 

“The difference between June and November is an eternity in this game,” Fuller said. 

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

 

    Brad Johnson. (Courtesy photo)
 
 
    Charles Walking Child Sr. (Courtesy photo)