This week, Montana finally got the answer to a question its election-weary masses have been begrudgingly mulling for a while: Who among the Republican ranks will take on Sen. Jon Tester in 2018? State Sen. Albert Olszewski announced his candidacy on April 11, vowing to "champion the unique needs of all Montanans in our nation's capital." Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas praised Olszewski as a "rising star." The Montana Democratic Party countered that the Kalispell-based orthopedic surgeon "may be one of the most radical politicians in the state legislature."
Whether Olszewski actually makes it to the general election ballot won't be decided for some time. The state GOP has been courting Attorney General Tim Fox for the race for at least a month, and who knows what other right-leaning hopefuls might enter the ring between now and the 2018 primary. Outside groups certainly aren't waiting to find out.
As the Indy initially reported last month, three conservative nonprofits launched major ad buys targeting Tester in February and early March, all focusing on the issue of Neil Gorsuch's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state chapter of Americans for Prosperity joined the push on April 4, hosting a phone bank urging voters to tell their Democratic senator to vote in Gorsuch's favor. Save for an incident in January involving an AFP lobbyist threatening to mark lawmakers down on the organization's legislative scorecard if they supported a minimum wage increase, it's the most publicly active AFP has been in some time.
Of course, all that money and phone banking didn't alter anything. Tester opposed Gorsuch last week just as he'd promised—citing Gorsuch's position on dark money among his top concerns. Gorsuch was confirmed anyway, despite a Democratic filibuster. But the invasion of Montana's televisions and monitors orchestrated by the likes of the Congressional Leadership Fund and Concerned Veterans for America has given us an early taste of what's in store for the 2018 Senate race. Consider this: Tester's 2012 showdown with Denny Rehberg featured record spending of $47 million—less than half of it by the candidates. So far this year, Tester-critical messaging has already run up a tab of nearly $2 million. And that was before a Republican had even entered the race.
The next 18 months are going to be nasty and expensive. Judging from the special election we're still in the throes of, that'll be pretty much par for the course.