- Associated Press - Monday, June 5, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana Attorney General Tim Fox announced Monday that he will not run for the U.S. Senate seat now occupied by Democrat Jon Tester, a two-term incumbent who is considered among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats in 2018.

National and state party leaders had been courting Fox to run against Tester after the GOP’s first choice, former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, took a cabinet position with President Donald Trump as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Fox said he still had a lot of work to do as attorney general, an office in which he was just re-elected to last November.

“I’m going to keep my promises to the people of Montana and continue fighting for justice throughout my full second term,” Fox said in his statement.

Fox’s decision means Republicans will have to scramble to find another candidate. Two lesser known candidates have already announced bids, including state Sen. Al Olszewski and Bozeman businessman Troy Downing, who heads a California-based self-storage company.

Tester’s campaign said it was prepared for any Republican candidate.

“I don’t think that there’s any question that 2018 is going to be a tough race, but I also believe that whoever ends up running against Jon Tester is going to have a really tough race,” said Chris Meagher, a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party.

The development also further muddled the field for the governor’s race in 2020.

Fox immediately becomes a leading contender for that post, although other Republicans are said to be eying the seat, including the state’s newly elected congressman, Greg Gianforte, even though he filed papers Friday for a 2018 House re-election bid.

Gianforte, a Republican who unsuccessfully sought the governor’s mansion last year, has yet to be sworn in as the state’s sole representative in the U.S. House and has yet to face a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from an election eve confrontation with a reporter.

A Gianforte spokesman did not return phone calls.

Republicans now hold all but two of Montana’s statewide offices - Tester’s Senate seat and the governorship - and would relish an opportunity to snatch away Tester’s post.

In 2012, Tester narrowly fended off a challenge from then-U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.

Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale said he has been fielding calls from supporters across the state encouraging him to run against Tester and said he would be mulling a possible run over the next few weeks or months.

He said Montana voters may need time to get over the closely watched congressional race.

“I think they’re ready to have cookouts and go water skiing,” Rosendale said of voters. “They just need a little break.”

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This story has been corrected to show that Chris Meagher is a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, not for Tester’s campaign.

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