MT’S GOP Senate field: Surgeon, former judge, real-estate developer, tech entrepreneur

Posted at 4:44 PM, Apr 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-05 18:44:55-04

From a surgeon who worked at the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to a tech entrepreneur who once danced with a famed ballet company, Montana’s GOP field in the U.S. Senate race has no shortage of compelling personal stories.

Now, with just weeks remaining until absentee ballots first go out, each of the four candidates – Troy Downing, Russell Fagg, Al Olszewski and Matt Rosendale – is busily pitching their profile to Republican voters, as the person who can beat Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

“I have what it takes to retire Jon Tester, to send him back to music class and give President Trump the backup that he needs in the U.S. Senate,” says Downing, in a typical comment.

The winner of the June 5 primary will take on Tester, the two-term Democrat and farmer from Big Sandy.

As a Democrat in a state won easily by President Trump in 2016, Tester is seen as potentially vulnerable this year.

Montana Republicans, however, haven’t settled on a clear favorite to challenge Tester, so the four men in the field are campaigning hard, still trying to connect with voters and up their name recognition, as the contest enters its home stretch. Absentee ballots will be mailed May 11.

Here’s a closer look at the four men who would challenge Tester:

Troy Downing: The only candidate who’s never held public office, Downing is a former high-tech entrepreneur who built a house at Big Sky in 2000 and moved there permanently in 2009.

Downing, 51, grew up in Indio, Calif., and briefly danced with the Joffrey Ballet Co. in New York before switching his major at New York University to applied mathematics. He became an expert on computer language and started a web-calendar firm that merged with Yahoo Inc. in 1998.

Downing left Yahoo three years later and became an investor in other companies and real estate, but enlisted in the Air Force in 2001 at age 34, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He flew on combat missions to pick up wounded soldiers in Afghanistan.

Probably the most outspoken supporter of President Trump, Downing says he’s the best choice to topple Tester because he’s a businessman, not a politician.

“Do we beat a Washington politician with a professional politician? I don’t think so,” he said at a March 22 debate. “Montanans voted overwhelmingly for Trump because he was a businessman, someone who saw the drastic need for change and someone who isn’t afraid of shaking up the status quo.”

Russell Fagg: The 57-year-old Fagg spent 25 years as a state district judge in Billings before stepping down last fall to enter the Senate race.

Fagg is from a political family. His father, Harrison, was state House majority leader in the early 1980s and a prominent architect in Billings, and his wife, Karen Barclay Fagg, served in the cabinet of Republican Gov. Stan Stephens nearly 30 years ago.

He’s gained endorsements from most of the luminaries of the old Republican guard in Montana, including former Gov. Marc Racicot and former U.S. Reps. Denny Rehberg and Rick Hill.

Fagg, born and raised in Billings, starts almost every speech talking about his deep Montana roots, and how that characteristic gives him an edge over the other candidates against Tester.

“The Democrats are going to unmercifully beat up two of my opponents because one of them moved here nine years ago and 15 years ago (Rosendale),” he said recently. “If you put me on that ticket, that takes that argument away from Senator Tester.”

Al Olszewski: Another Montana native, Olszewski grew up in Great Falls and spent 13 years as a surgeon with the Air Force, before settling in Kalispell.

During his stint as a “rapid mobility trauma surgeon,” Olszewski was deployed to treat victims at the 1995 bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where 168 people died and 680 were injured.

Olszewski has worked for nearly 20 years as an orthopedic surgeon in Kalispell and spent the last three-and-a-half years as a state legislator. He has been involved in many health-care issues before the Legislature, including sponsoring bills to restrict abortion and to encourage physicians to practice in rural Montana.

Olszewski, 55, sometimes refers to himself as the “dark horse” in the race, but says he can identify with a wide swath of voters, making him the best challenger to Tester.

“I’m a story-teller,” he told a crowd at a GOP debate last month. “I’m able to engage the people of Montana. And I can ask them to join our story, too – not just the Republicans, but those in the middle, the 40 percent that will make the decision of who beats Jon Tester or not.”

Matt Rosendale: Rosendale, 57, is the only GOP candidate who’s run a statewide campaign before.

He ran for the U.S. House in 2014, finishing a close third in a five-way GOP primary, and was elected state auditor in 2016, defeating Democrat Jesse Laslovich and becoming the first Republican to win the seat since 1988.

Rosendale, who lives on a ranch near Glendive, grew up on the east shore of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and moved to Montana in 2002. He’s been a real-estate developer and land manager and has a building firm in Great Falls.

Rosendale pitches himself as a strong conservative bent on resisting or repealing regulations he says impede business. He also has gained endorsements from national-level conservatives, like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

“I’ve got a vision for the state of Montana and I’ve got a vision for this nation, and it’s where jobs are plentiful and people are free to pursue their full potential without the obstructions of an obtrusive government,” he says.