A pair of unusual moves from two House Republicans drew attention in GOP circles this week: Speaker Mike Johnson’s reported plans to endorse hard-right Rep. Matt Rosendale’s bid for Senate in Montana on Thursday, and Rosendale’s vote on Tuesday in favor of a standalone bill to provide aid to Israel pushed by Johnson.
Rosendale had been vocally opposed to an Israel aid bill since Johnson announced last weekend that he would put one on the floor.
And Johnson wasn’t expected to back Rosendale in the Senate race, given that GOP brass has lined up behind former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy as their candidate to take on Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).
As it turns out, the moves were hardly coincidental.
According to three sources familiar with the negotiations, as well as one GOP leadership aide with knowledge of the situation, Johnson traded Rosendale’s vote on the Israel package for an endorsement of Rosendale’s Senate bid.
At least, that was the plan.
After Punchbowl News reported Thursday morning that a Johnson endorsement of Rosendale was imminent, Johnson quickly heard from top Republican strategists that a Rosendale endorsement could be disastrous for GOP efforts to reclaim the Senate.
Amid the backlash of the reported endorsement, one of the sources told The Daily Beast that Johnson’s staff told other chiefs of staff on the Hill that the reason for the endorsement of Rosendale was because of his vote on the Israel aid package.
But the Speaker apparently didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.
Two hours after their initial news of an endorsement, Johnson received so much blowback that he called at least one senator and one congressman and told them he no longer plans to endorse Rosendale, a source familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast.
A few hours later, CNN reported that Johnson would be donating to Rosendale’s campaign instead of endorsing him, which The Daily Beast confirmed with Johnson’s political spokesperson.
While that move arguably fulfills Johnson’s commitment, Rosendale inarguably held up his end of the deal. In voting for the Israel bill, Rosendale conspicuously broke with his close allies in the GOP’s right flank who opposed an aid measure that wasn’t offset with other cuts. He also contradicted his own criticism of Johnson, from just the day before, over the Speaker’s strategy for advancing the legislation.
“People’s patience is wearing thin,” Rosendale told Montana news station KYFR. “We have tried to support, we have tried to encourage, and we have tried to give guidance to Speaker Johnson, but he cannot revert to suspending rules and getting more Democrats to pass legislation than Republicans.”
The Israel measure ended up failing, falling short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass under expedited consideration.
While sources who spoke to The Daily Beast were adamant that this horse-trading occurred, Johnson’s team vehemently denied the reporting.
“That's not true,” a Johnson spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “There was no discussion about an endorsement until after the floor was adjourned Tuesday night."
Rosendale also strongly pushed back on the story. “That is 100% false,” he told The Daily Beast through a spokesperson via email. “It is offensive for anyone to even insinuate that my support for any legislation would be contingent upon the Speaker’s support. The two subjects were never discussed at the same time or in connection with each other.”
In his statement, Rosendale added that while he continued to look for ways for Congress to offset the cost of aid for Israel, “I will always support Israel in its effort to defend itself.”
A source close to Rosendale also claimed this story was “an absolute lie being pushed by Tim Sheehy and Mitch McConnell allies that are so terrified of Matt Rosendale entering the U.S. Senate race in Montana that they’d make up an absurd fantastical story based on no evidence about trading an endorsement for a vote on a bill that wasn’t even close.”
But if the trade is “100% false,” then multiple sources familiar with the discussions are lying—and the rumors flying around Capitol Hill on Thursday are totally unfounded. After Punchbowl’s initial story on Thursday morning, Politico reported that Republicans had “privately expressed concerns” that Rosendale exchanged his vote on the Israel bill for a Johnson endorsement.
The sources who spoke to The Daily Beast, however, confirmed it was more than just bad optics.
“This was the modern-day Louisiana purchase,” one Republican operative who was aware of the backroom deal told The Daily Beast.
The reason why Johnson reversed himself still isn’t clear, but it may have to do with a speedy outreach campaign to convince Johnson to hold off. Senate Republicans seem to think Sheehy—a young veteran and wealthy entrepreneur with no prior political experience—is best suited to take on Tester.
Crucially, Rosendale, a conservative agitator, has already lost to Tester once; in 2018, he was defeated by nearly three points in this typically red state.
While Rosendale has spent months teasing a Senate run, national Republicans have tried to box him out to no avail; the congressman is reportedly officially launching his campaign on Friday.
Amid the sudden backlash after Punchbowl reported the news Thursday morning, Johnson called at least one senator and one congressman and told them he no longer plans to endorse Rosendale. It’s just the latest flip-flop in Johnson’s short tenure as speaker, which is increasingly being defined by sudden shifts and strategic miscalculations.
Johnson’s team claimed there was never an endorsement, rather he had just “committed to sending a check from his leadership PAC to Congressman Rosendale.”
But another source close to Rosendale relayed that they believe the whole situation reflects just how amateurish both the new Speaker and the Senate hopeful are.
“These people,” the source said, “are impossibly dumb.”