The ex-Navy SEAL and founder of Bridger Aerospace hopes to topple Montana Democrat Jon Tester in 2024. A competitive primary likely stands in his way.
By Arren Kimbel-Sannit MONTANA FREE PRESS
Former Navy SEAL and Belgrade businessman Tim Sheehy has declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, making him the first Republican to formally announce a challenge to Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester in 2024.
Sheehy, the millionaire founder and CEO of aerial firefighting company Bridger Aerospace, said in a statement Tuesday he would “fight to bring real leadership to Washington to save our country and protect our Montana way of life.”
“I think Americans are feeling underrepresented,” he told Fox News Digital. “They’re tired of a government that they don’t feel is working for them.”
He named inflation, border security and the federal budget deficit as top issues. Sheehy’s team did not respond to a request for an interview in time for publication Tuesday.
Tester, Montana’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, is a major target of national and state Republicans in the fight for partisan control of the Senate, in which Democrats hold an effective 51-49 majority. (Three senators — Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Maine’s Angus King — are technically independents who generally caucus with the Democrats).
And several Democrats are up for re-election in red states, notably Tester, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
“This is very, very important. When we win Montana, we win the United States Senate. It’s as simple as that,” Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told a crowd at the Montana GOP officer’s convention earlier this month.
But whether Sheehy will be the candidate for the state party in its longstanding quest to topple the four-term hopeful Tester remains to be seen. The Republican primary is likely to be competitive, and on Monday, Politico reported what’s already been widely rumored to be true — that Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale, a conservative hardliner affiliated with the House Freedom Caucus, is also planning a bid for Senate. Sheehy, on the other hand, was recruited by the NRSC.
“Tim Sheehy is a decorated veteran, successful businessman and a great Montanan. I could not be happier that he has decided to enter the Montana Senate race,” Daines said in his capacity as NRSC chair Tuesday.
Rosendale challenged Tester in 2018, losing by just shy of four points. Since then, he’s raised his profile, emerging as a main character in the Freedom Caucus’ rebellion against GOP Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this year.
Rosendale, who has not yet announced a bid for Senate, took an early crack at Sheehy Tuesday, writing on Twitter that he was chosen by McConnell and the “party bosses.”
“Now Washington has two candidates — Tim Sheehy and Jon Tester — who will protect the DC cartel,” Rosendale wrote. “Unfortunately for them, Montanans don’t take orders from Washington. I believe that Montanans are tired of business as usual and will reject the McConnell-Biden Establishment.”
A spokesperson for Rosendale said in a statement that the two-term congressman has yet to decide whether to challenge Tester, but noted that Rosendale “has the trust and overwhelming support of Montana voters and there is no question that the people of Montana deserve better than a Democrat yes-man like Sen. Tester or a candidate hand-picked by McConnell and the Washington, D.C. elites.”
The spokesperson pointed to a poll from Public Policy Polling, generally seen as a liberal pollster, showing that 67% of the 510 likely GOP primary voters surveyed favor Rosendale compared to just 10% for Sheehy. Still, Montana is notoriously difficult to poll given its large geography and sparse population, and it may be in Democrats’ interest to promote Rosendale in the primary under the assumption that a hard-liner would face difficulties defeating Tester in a general election.
Sheehy’s relatively low-profile can also be an asset — he has no voting record to criticize. Nevertheless, Montana Democrats have already attacked Sheehy for his wealth, his purchase of expensive properties on Flathead Lake and in Big Sky and his roots in Minnesota, as opposed to in Montana.
Montana Democrats have employed similar lines against Republican candidates in recent campaigns. But Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, Congressman Ryan Zinke and Rosendale have all won races to statewide or federal office, despite questions of residency and Montana authenticity.
“Jon Tester has farm equipment that’s been in Montana longer than Tim Sheehy,” Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Montana Democratic Party, said. “The last thing Montanans want in a senator is an out-of-state transplant recruited by Mitch McConnell and DC lobbyists. The tough questions Tim Sheehy is facing are just beginning.”