The Slatest

How a Maryland Accent Is Defining Montana’s Senate Race

Matt Rosendale
Matt Rosendale
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by

In 2013, when Montana State Sen. Matt Rosendale was running in the Republican primary for the state’s at-large House seat, he released a campaign ad in which he shot what was, in his words, a “government drone” with a rifle. The stunt earned him a slew of national media attention, as ads with gun stunts typically do. But for those of us with an appreciation for mid-Atlantic accents, shooting the “government drone” wasn’t the story. It was the way that he said “drone,” or his own last name, with an elaborate “EH-o” sound for the long “o”. The pronunciation was unmistakably Maryland, as if a pit beef restaurant manager from Dundalk had kidnapped the actual guy who was running for Congress in Montana and taken his place. What was the most Maryland-sounding person alive doing here, running for Congress in Big Sky country?

Rosendale left his native Maryland, where he was a real estate developer, in 2002, but he took the accent with him. Since losing that 2014 congressional primary to Ryan Zinke, who is now Secretary of the Interior, Rosendale has served as Montana’s Senate majority leader and, currently serves as its state auditor.

He is also the favorite in this year’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, a high-stakes race to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in November. He has the endorsements of conservative Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz, as well as conservative organizations like the Club for Growth and Freedomworks. Breitbart loves him, and the limited polling suggests he’s comfortably ahead of his three primary opponents.

But Rosendale’s YouTube offerings this time around appear to be much different. The “government drone” ad from five years ago has been pulled—don’t worry, you can still watch it here—and most of the videos on his page now stand out for their lack of a certain, central element to most introductory campaign ads: the candidate’s voice.

Here is his first ad from last year, for example, in which we hear that “Matt Rosendale means business” not from Rosendale himself, but from a gruff third-party narrator.

You would think that living in a state for 16 years would be enough to shake off attacks of opportunism or carpetbagging. But his accent won’t allow him to. His opponents in both the primary and the general are using the accent to “otherize” Rosendale.

“At a candidate forum Wednesday in Missoula, Mont.,” The Washington Post reports, “former Billings judge Russ Fagg laid into the most well-funded candidate in the race, state Auditor Matt Rosendale, calling him a Maryland transplant who came to the state only to run for office.”

Now, “former Billings judge Russ Fagg” may not be able to topple Rosendale in the primary, but he does bless the attacks that the state Democratic Party is already using against the man they’ve dubbed “Maryland Matt.” The Montana Democratic Party has made a web video of Maryland Matt, replete with crab imagery. Within it is footage from an old pro-Zinke ad, which shows an animated crab shuffling across a map from Maryland to Montana.

“Maryland values aren’t Montana values,” it reads.

As a native Marylander, I agree. Maryland values are far more wholesome. It is a shame that some in this country see “Maryland Matt” as an epithet, when any “Matt” out there should feel honored to earn such a sobriquet. If Rosendale wants to be the next Montana senator, he shouldn’t hide from his beautiful voice. He should seek to settle Montana as a colony of Maryland, much as Cecil Calvert settled Maryland as a colonial refuge for Catholics. You can’t hide who you are. Run with it.