BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) —
U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale was slammed over his opposition to aid for Ukraine and votes against federal projects that could benefit Montana, during a live Saturday night debate in eastern Montana's U.S. House race that showed deep policy divisions between the Republican and challengers Democrat Penny Ronning and independent Gary Buchanan.
Rosendale responded to the twin barrage by saying he was sent to Washington to represent the views of Montana — “not to just sign off on a piece of legislation so that they can get a crumb off the table.”
Both Ronning and Buchanan characterized Rosendale as undermining Montana's best interests, including with votes against Ukraine and infrastructure improvements such as Montana's Milk River irrigation project.
“The embarrassment continues — yesterday he voted against providing military assistance, once again, to Ukraine,” Buchanan said. He was referring to a spending bill that advanced on Friday with bipartisan support and included money for the war-torn country.
Ronning, a former Billings city council member and longtime advocate for stronger human trafficking laws, accused Rosendale of voting "against almost every piece of legislation when it comes to helping Montanans.”
Since his 2020 election, Rosendale has quickly aligned with the extreme right wing of the GOP. He was one of just three lawmakers who voted against the House's initial resolution in support of Ukraine after it was attacked by Russia. And he was among the 14 Republicans voting against the Juneteenth federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S.
He entered the race in January considered the frontrunner in a district that leans decidedly Republican, and easily fended off three challengers in the June primary.
Ronning won a two-way Democratic primary against Skylar Williams of Billings with 58% of the vote. Democrat Mark Sweeney, a former state senator who died after ballots were already finalized with his name on them, drew 18%.
A week after the primary, Buchanan and his supporters had gathered enough petitions to get him onto the ballot. His entry injected an unexpected dynamic in the race when Buchanan picked up endorsements from former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dorothy Bradley. In August he was endorsed by the AFL-CIO and Montana Federation of Public Employees — a surprise move by unions that have frequently supported Democrats.
Yet with no public polling in the race, it’s unknown how deep his support runs, or if he’s more likely to draw traditionally Republican or Democratic voters and at numbers sufficient to harm Ronning or even Rosendale.
During the televised debate in Great Falls hosted by MTN News, Buchanan said Democrats and Republicans alike overspend at the national level. Ronning criticized his close ties to the banking industry, and she split with both Buchanan and Rosendale in her support of the student loan forgiveness program announced in August by the Biden administration.
“Stop electing millionaires,” she said. “They don’t live like the rest of us live.”
Rosendale said his re-election would help shield the nation against more excessive spending by Democrats.
“We’ve seen over the last 20 months how the Democrats’ single-party rule has all but ruined our country,” Rosendale said. “We have higher interest rates. We have higher crime rates, we have higher grocery bills. We have high higher fuel bills.”
Libertarian candidate Sam Rankin is also on the ballot for November but was not invited to Saturday’s debate because organizers said he did not meet criteria based on fundraising and other factors.
November's election is the first since Montana gained a second congressional seat due to population growth recorded in the 2020 census.
A Democrat has not been elected to represent Montana in the House since 1994. Over the last decade, Republicans have taken every statewide and federal elected office in Montana except the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Jon Tester.
In 2018 Rosendale failed to unseat Tester despite more than $20 million from outside groups spent on Rosendale’s behalf and four visits to Montana by former President Donald Trump to stump for the Republican. Trump had a personal grudge against Tester after the Democrat derailed Trump’s Veteran Affairs nominee by exposing misconduct allegations.
As the general election campaign got underway, Rosendale had a major cash advantage with just over $1 million versus $10,100 for Ronning and $69,000 for Buchanan as of June 30, according to Federal Election Commission data. Rankin had just $100 remaining after putting more than $20,000 of his own money into the race.
Follow Matthew Brown: @matthewbrownAP