Montana Politics – 'All Hat No Cattle'

Greg Henderson
Greg Henderson

John Dutton wields powerful influence – either by hook or by crook – on Montana’s politics. Dutton, the fictional Montana rancher played by Oscar-winning actor Kevin Costner in this summer’s new television series Yellowstone, owns the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S. The plot twists, skullduggery and family feuding make Yellowstone a modern version of Dallas, with Dutton a cowboy-replica of J.R. Ewing.

In real life, Montana remains one of the few places in America where a smidgen of cowboy-cred is advantageous if you are running for political office. John Tester has it. Matt Rosendale wants it.

Tester and Rosendale are running to represent Montana in the U.S. Senate, garnering attention from special-interest groups across America. Tester, the Democratic incumbent elected in 2006, owns an 1,800-acre farm that his grandfather homesteaded. Rosendale, the Republican currently serving as Montana’s state auditor, bought his $2.2 million spread near Glendive in eastern Montana’s badlands in 2002.

Tester, the Senate’s only active farmer, has been sent to Washington twice despite the majority of Montana voters identifying as Republicans. Rosendale was a Maryland real estate developer before establishing the Glendive residence and running for, and winning, a seat in the Montana House of Representatives in 2010. Two years later he was elected to the Montana State Senate, serving until 2017. Critics see Rosendale as a carpetbagger, calling him “Maryland Matt” to reinforce the fact he’s not a native Montanan.

Yet, Rosendale and his supporters insist that he is a rancher, despite the fact he hasn’t registered ownership of any livestock since 2011, and before that it was limited to a few horses. Records show he received a registered livestock brand when he bought the ranch, but it doesn’t appear he ever used it.

Writing in The Montana Post, self-described as “Progressive Politics from the Big Sky,” Don Progreba described Rosendale’s initial 2018 campaign television ad with “the candidate standing in front of an iconic red barn with cattle walking in the background.  A review of satellite images of the Rosendale farm and conversation with locals show that Rosendale doesn’t own a barn like that on his property, and we know he doesn’t—and has never—owned any cattle.”

Of course, whether Tester or Rosendale are actual ranchers means little to Washington lobbyists who will pressure the winner next year for votes on their special-interest issues. Polls say the race is narrowly in favor of Tester at the moment, yet Montana is a state Donald Trump carried by 20 points in 2016.

RealClearPolitics says of Montana’s Senate race: “This state has swung toward Republicans as well, who control every statewide office with the exception of this seat (Tester’s) and the governorship. But the national environment may insulate (Tester) against the state’s partisan tilt.”

Identifying as a rancher may not qualify one to hold a Senate seat, but in a tight race such as Montana’s where cows (2.6 million) outnumber people (1 million), it offers something every politician wants – an edge. It’s an edge that both politicians obviously covet, but on this part of the ledger, one holds cattle while the other holds a hat.


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