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Tim Sheehy won the Montana GOP primary. November's race may decide Senate control

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy speaks to a crowd during a fundraising event that featured Donald Trump, Jr., in Missoula, Mt., on April 28.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy speaks to a crowd during a fundraising event that featured Donald Trump, Jr., in Missoula, Mt., on April 28.

Republican Tim Sheehy won his party’s nomination to run for Montana’s U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday, according to a race call by The Associated Press.

Sheehy, a former Navy Seal and entrepreneur, is a political newcomer taking on incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in November. He addressed his lack of legislative experience head on at a dinner with Montana Republicans earlier this year.

“I’ve been criticized by a lot of people, some in this room [who ask], ‘who the hell is this guy? He’s never been in office before. What does he think he’s doing running for Senate?' ” he said.


He told Republicans at the dinner he’ll need broad support to win this fall.

“To sum it up, I’m here because I love this country, I fought for this country, I’ve lost friends for this country, my wife fought for this country. Our country is in great peril. We are at a crossroads of the nation,” Sheehy said.

Sheehy has GOP establishment support and his party’s nomination. But now, he must convince enough Montanans he’s the right person for the job instead of a three-term incumbent. Tester has held public office for more than two decades and has outraised Sheehy so far three to one, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The general election stakes include the political balance of the U.S. Senate and the chance for Republicans to control all statewide offices in Montana.

Appearing on MSNBC after polls closed on Tuesday, Tester lashed out at his opponent on Tuesday, telling MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that folks are trying to "buy Montana" and turn it into a "playground for the rich."

“And quite frankly, I’ve got a lot of equipment that I’ve owned longer than he’s been in the state of Montana,” Tester said.

Sheehy is backed by Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines and is endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Trump’s son, Don Trump Jr., rallied for Sheehy and other Republican candidates at a recent fundraiser in Missoula, Mont. He said Sheehy is the best shot the party has at taking control of the Senate.

“If we don’t do it now, it’s a decade til we even have a chance, meaning a chance where there’s like a red state with a blue state senator in it that’s up for election that we can actually make gains, for a decade,” Trump Jr. said.

Who is Tim Sheehy?

Sheehy lives just outside of Bozeman with his wife Carmen, a Marine Corps veteran, and their four children. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with valor and the Purple Heart while in the military. Sheehy is originally from Minnesota but moved to Montana in 2014 and founded two companies focused on aerial firefighting and drone technology. In 2020, he bought land along the Little Belt Mountains in central Montana and started a 20,000 acre cattle ranch with two partners.

Sheehy says he decided to get into politics after the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. The Biden White House has said it was constrained by the previous administration and blamed Trump for the lack of preparedness.

“We gave up our 20s to fight for this country. And Biden literally washed it all away, and didn’t even say sorry for it,” Sheehy said. “And I knew right then that I had to get involved.”

Sheehy says his lack of political experience is a strength. If he wins, he'll unseat a longtime senator who chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee as well as the Appropriations Committee’s Defense subcommittee. But Sheehy pointed to Congress’ low approval rating, which Gallup puts at 13%in May 2024.

“So obviously whatever we’re doing there is not working very well. The American people do not have confidence in that body. So to continue to send the same people back there over and over and over and over again is probably not the way to fix America right now.”

Sheehy’s campaign platform includes proposals to cut the federal budget by shrinking the executive branch. He’s suggested the U.S. Departments of Education and Homeland Security could be eliminated, arguing they add bureaucracy for services states and local communities should provide.

“We have a blended homeschool model with our kids,” he said, “They go to a co-op with other faith-based, ag families. We don’t have the federal government giving us a handbook saying teach your children this. We don’t need that.”

Sheehy said that could work for other communities.

Sheehy has called for the U.S. to complete Trump’s wall at the southern border, saying it needs to be sealed to prevent illegal immigration. He’s also been critical of the passage of a $95 billion foreign aid package that a majority of Republican senators supported. And he says the U.S. has stretched itself too thin in its foreign policy.

Sheehy faces hurdles, including name recognition and distrust

While Sheehy has the party’s top brass by his side, he still has to convince Montanans, including some Republicans, he’s right for the job.

Nathaniel Palmer is a conservative-leaning voter and U.S. Army veteran from Billings. He said he’s dissatisfied with Tester’s work.

“So, somebody new would probably be better,” Palmer said. The issue, for Palmer, he says, is that he doesn’t know much about Sheehy, putting the Republican candidate at a disadvantage in name recognition right now.

And he faces other hurdles, too.

The Washington Post first reported that Sheehy was cited in 2015 for accidentally discharging a gun in Glacier National Park that lodged a bullet in his arm. The story raised questions, as Sheehy had written in his memoir about aerial firefighting and said on the campaign trail that the bullet in his arm is from his days in active combat.

Sheehy insists he actually fell while hiking and that no gun was involved; he says he mentioned an old bullet wound when he sought treatment at a local hospital. And he says he then lied to a Glacier National Park ranger about the origin of the bullet to protect his platoon mates from an investigation into a friendly fire incident.

Sheehy’s timeline of events is inconsistent with a park ranger’s 2015 account, which was detailed in a summary the National Park Service released recently. However, he’s resisted releasing medical records that may show when he sustained the bullet wound, saying he shouldn't have to do that if Tester doesn't.

“It’s pretty ridiculous that after serving my country and being wounded overseas, I’m being forced to present medical records. I ran and got an X-ray to prove to the Washington Post after they were trying to convict me in the court of public opinion that I was a fake veteran of stolen valor. So I think it’s pretty insulting and ridiculous,” Sheehy said.

The Washington Post reported the X-ray was inconclusive in determining when the injury occurred. Sheehy’s Bronze Star and Purple Heart are unrelated to the injury and not in question. Questions about the bullet wound did not arise until the National Park Service citation was published.

Aside from making headlines over the bullet wound, Sheehy has faced some distrust within his own party.

That includes Al Olszewski, a surgeon and former state legislator who chairs the Flathead County Republican Central Committee. He posted a video to Facebook with a “call to action” after party leaders backed Sheehy in the Senate race instead of Rep. Matt Rosendale, who has since dropped out.

“Respectfully decline and oppose our party bosses and our rulers who are continuing to shove down our throats their demands and their pet candidates,” Olszewski said.

The GOP primary included former Secretary of State and Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson.

When he announced his candidacy, Johnson said it’s a David vs, Goliath-type competition. He said he believes Sheehy got party support for one reason.

“It had nothing to do with policy, or experience, or electability — it had to do with money. And that to me is at the root of the problem we have with the system today,” Johnson said.

Millions more in outside spending on the race is expected to pour in to Montana over the next few months.

Copyright 2024 Montana Public Radio

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.