BILLINGS, Mont. – Former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy announced Tuesday he will seek the 2024 Republican nomination to challenge Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester as the Democrat tries to secure a fourth term.
Sheehy, 37, was recruited by GOP leaders eager to unseat Tester as they try to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats, who hold a slim majority and will have several vulnerable incumbents on the 2024 ballot, including Tester.
Sheehy runs an aerial firefighting company, Bridger Aerospace, which he founded near Bozeman after moving to Montana in 2014. This is his first run for public office, and he said in a telephone interview that his military service and business background will set him apart in the race.
“What I'm seeing now is kind of a government devoid of common sense,” he said Tuesday. “It's a lot of rhetoric, a lot of demagoguery, but not a lot of people sitting down actually trying to solve the serious problems we face as a country.”
His entry shakes up a GOP primary that was previously considered a potential battle between Montana's two U.S. representatives — Matt Rosendale and Ryan Zinke.
Zinke — also a former Navy SEAL and who served as Interior secretary under Trump — is now supporting Sheehy.
But Rosendale is still eyeing a run after losing to Tester in 2018. Rosendale aligns with the party’s extreme right wing and has been heavily backed in past elections by the conservative fundraising group Club for Growth. He issued a statement Tuesday saying Sheehy was the “chosen candidate” of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP party bosses.
“Now Washington has two candidates - Tim Sheehy and Jon Tester - who will protect the D.C. cartel,” Rosendale said. “I believe that Montanans are tired of business as usual and will reject the McConnell-Biden Establishment.”
Tester, a central Montana farmer viewed as a Senate moderate, won his 2018 election by four percentage points. Following his party's poor showing in Montana in 2020, Tester became the only Democrat in Montana to hold statewide office, reflecting a decade-long rise by Republicans.
Sheehy’s entrance into the contest was anticipated by Democrats, who in recent weeks issued statements criticizing the Republican as a newcomer to the state.
Montana Democratic Party spokeswoman Monica Robinson described Sheehy in a Tuesday statement as ”an out-of-state transplant recruited by Mitch McConnell and DC lobbyists.”
She added that Tester “has farm equipment that’s been in Montana longer than Tim Sheehy.”
Sheehy said he was born in Minnesota and moved to Montana to start Bridger Aerospace after being wounded in combat in Afghanistan.
“I didn't live here because I was fighting our nation's wars and defending America, as was my wife," he said. Carmen Sheehy is a U.S. Marine veteran and served in Afghanistan, according to the Sheehy campaign.
His platform largely is in line with national Republican priorities such as securing the southern U.S. border, opposing gun control and reducing government's role in providing health care.
Bridger Aerospace — with 166 employees and a fleet of “Super Scooper” planes that can scoop up water from lakes to drop on wildfires — gets 99% of its revenue from government contracts, according to regulatory filings.
The company suffered a net loss of $42 million last year, in part because of interest payments on $213 million in debt from outstanding loans, the filings show.
The only other Montana Republican to formally enter the 2024 Senate race is Jeremy Mygland, who runs an East Helena home construction company. Mygland has raised about $85,000 since last July, Federal Election Commission campaign filings show.
Tester, 66, won his three prior Senate elections by narrow margins.
Former President Donald Trump campaigned heavily on Rosendale’s behalf in 2018 as Republicans portrayed Tester as too liberal for the state and criticized him for accepting money linked to corporate lobbyists, a practice that's continued.
Tester brought in more than $9 million since his last election and had more than $7 million remaining as of March 31, campaign filings show.
Tester's campaign spent almost $20 million in 2018 race. Money from outside groups drove up overall spending in that race to more than $60 million, shattering prior records for Montana elections.