Vice President Mike Pence roused a crowd of 400 people to vote Matt Rosendale into the U.S. Senate and stay the course with Donald Trump during a Wednesday morning rally in Billings.
Pence spoke for about 30 minutes at an event organized by America First Policies, a tax-exempt social welfare group formed six days after Trump’s inauguration to promote the President’s agenda. The former Indiana Republican governor described the first 18 months of Trump’s presidency as a whirlwind success.
“There’s only one way you sum up the last 18 months,” Pence said. “It’s been a year and half of action. It’s been a year and a half of results. It’s been a year and a half of promises made and promises kept.”
Pence delivered the message with a firm tone and his shoulders squared, clutching the edges of the podium inside MetraPark’s Montana Pavilion like a traveling pastor on the Midwestern circuit. He told his congregation that “if you’re so inclined to bow your head and bend a knee, I encourage you to do it.” But before doing so, the vice president called for action, telling attendees they needed to be going door to door for Rosendale, who in just 100 days will face incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester on the November ballot.
Team Trump is going all out to sell voters on the candidate branded as “Matt for Montana.” In less than a month, Trump, son Donald Trump Jr. and now Pence have all made Montana appearances to stump for Rosendale, a former Maryland real estate agent who relocated to Glendive, won election to the state Legislature and then was elected state auditor in 2016.
The Senate race is expected to be competitive. In a down-ballot state auditor’s race with a high-dollar governor’s race and Trump at the top of the ticket, Rosendale still managed 262,045 votes, which was 6,000 more votes than Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock received to win re-election that year.
Pundits have described Tester’s identity as a multi-generational Montana farmer as good armor against an attack from Rosendale, who Democrats have nicknamed “Maryland Matt.” The Big Sandy farmer has won two elections with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, with his GOP opponents earning even less than that and third party Libertarian candidates making up the difference. But Wednesday, Rosendale supporters at the Pence rally were quick to point out that the auditor had received 26,000 more votes in 2016 than Tester received in his 2012 re-election bid.
“Matt Rosendale really is Montana. He’s a family man. He’s also a man of faith,” Pence said. “President Trump called Matt a fighter and for the past eight years Matt’s fought tirelessly for conservative policies and principles in Montana’s House, Montana’s Senate and now as state auditor. I don’t know about you, but when I look at a fighter like Matt Rosendale, I sure think we could use another conservative fighter just like him in Washington, D.C.”
Rosendale reciprocated, praising Trump for his Supreme Court picks and the president's support for defunding Planned Parenthood, a move the candidate associated with "defending the unborn." The Trump team was able to end the "individual mandate" requiring Americans who can afford health insurance to have coverage or face a penalty. They passed the tax cuts package Republicans wanted. These were things Sen. Jon Tester opposed, Rosendale said.
"Just think how much more they could have accomplished if they simply had one more vote," the candidate said.
And the praises for the president continued.
Interior Secretary and former Montana U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke praised Trump's development of U.S. energy resources.
“We are producing 11 million barrels a day. We have passed Saudi Arabia and we will pass Russia in the fourth quarter and we will be the largest oil and gas producer on the planet,” Zinke told the audience. “And that is brought to you by Donald J. Trump.”
Former Milwaukee County, Wis., Sheriff and conservative firebrand David Clarke suggested that unemployment numbers for African Americans and Hispanics during the Trump era were historically great, better than under America's first black president.
Aside from drumming up Rosendale votes, the purpose of the America First Policies rally was to sing the praises of December’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a $1 trillion package of permanent tax cuts for upper-income earners and businesses, and temporary cuts for middle- and lower-class Americans. The program featured a trio of Montana businessmen, Billings Flying Service co-owner Gary Blain, Roberts rancher and agribusinessman Colter DeVries, and Mergenthaler Transfer and Storage owner Steve Mergenthaler.
The men spoke about how Trump tax cuts and policies benefited their businesses, while avoiding the business challenges created by the president’s trade policies. DeVries identified the EPA water quality rules and national monuments as federal government challenges farmers and ranchers face, challenges Trump has worked to mitigate. He didn’t mention the tariffs Trump has imposed on China and other nations, which have sparked trade wars making Montana wheat more expensive for foreign buyers. The state does $1 billion in wheat trade annually.
Blain said Trump’s renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, of which farm groups have been critical, has helped right the ship for the U.S. helicopter business. Blaine customizes helicopters and manufactures firefighting equipment for the aircraft. He also does firefighting flights, seismic testing for oil companies and trains government contractors for helicopter flights in Afghanistan.
“NAFTA doesn’t work for helicopter companies if you want to go to Canada. It works really good for Canadians to come down to the U.S., but it doesn’t work at all if you want to go to Canada,” Blain said
There were applause for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but the subject didn’t bring people to their feet as did other red meat issues. The crowd stood when the vice president called for supporting Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which several Democrats running for the Congress have said needs to be abolished in light of the way Latin American refugee children crossing the border into the United States have been removed from their families and caged.
Pence encouraged supporters to support other law enforcement as well, naming certain branches specifically but not mentioning the FBI or CIA, two agencies Trump has accused of conducting a “witchhunt” in their investigation of Russian efforts to undermine U.S. democracy.
The vice president drew loud applause when he called for the support of Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh, though when he called out Tester for voting against confirming Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017, the crowd response was quiet, except for two men in the back of the room who shouted, “Yeah,” but didn’t ignite a round of approving applause.
The audience cheered loudly for Trump landing the $700 billion spending bill for the Department of Defense. Pence called it the largest military spending bill in U.S. history. The spending was part of the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that Montana Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte opposed because of the size of the bill.
Outside the event, Libertarian U.S. House candidate Elinor Swanson met event-goers with a campaign placard. Swanson attended the rally to see what Pence had to say. She didn’t like everything she heard.
“I believe tax cuts do grow the economy. I’m not sure it makes up for the nearly $1 trillion deficit,” Swanson said. “We need to balance the budget.”