In Montana, a folksy farmer and Trump provocateur battles for third term

Alex Brandon/AP
Sen. Jon Tester (D) of Montana speaks during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Sept. 26, 2018.
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One of the fiercest battles for control of Congress is playing out in Montana, where Sen. Jon Tester (D) is fighting for a third term in a state President Trump won by 20 points. Senator Tester, a folksy farmer, is more liberal and more outspoken against the president than many other red-state Democrats fighting for reelection, but he’s been leading in most polls this year, thanks to Democratic enthusiasm and a likable persona. The race has tightened dramatically in the final stretch, however. One factor: the high-stakes battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which appears to be galvanizing conservative voters. At stake is not only Republican control of the Senate, but Mr. Trump’s legacy.  “I think this race matters a lot,” says Prof. David Parker of Montana State University, as a test of “whether or not Trump is indeed changing politics as we know it, whether or not he truly has captured and tapped into building a new Republican coalition that is potentially enduring.”

Why We Wrote This

In an age of extraordinary divisiveness, a tight Senate battle in pro-Trump Montana is testing whether moderate Democrats like Sen. Jon Tester – who has been willing to cross the president – can win.

A rare breed of voter lives under Montana’s big sky, where the sun sets over jagged mountain ridges and illuminates swaths of freshly cut wheat in alternating shades of gold.

This is a state where voters propelled President Trump to a 20-point victory in 2016 and, on the same ballot, elected a Democrat governor. Where almost everyone seems to have a close relative with diametrically opposed political views – and yet many a bipartisan family has found a way to coexist. Where diner talk ranges from close encounters with grizzlies to how to save America’s democracy.

So it’s not surprising that one of the fiercest battles for control of Congress this fall is being waged here in Montana. Though the sparsely populated state has fewer registered voters than many major cities, outside groups have already poured close to $18 million into the race – and are likely to increase their spending in weeks to come. 

Why We Wrote This

In an age of extraordinary divisiveness, a tight Senate battle in pro-Trump Montana is testing whether moderate Democrats like Sen. Jon Tester – who has been willing to cross the president – can win.

At stake is not only which party will get the upper hand in the Senate, but also whether the forces of partisan polarization sweeping the United States will trump Montana’s uniquely thoughtful brand of politics.

On paper, this race is between two-term Sen. Jon Tester (D), a burly farmer who lost three fingers as a 9-year-old while helping his family butcher their Montana-raised beef, and Republican challenger Matt Rosendale, a Maryland developer who bought a ranch here in 2002 and served three terms in the state legislature before becoming state auditor.

But in many ways the race, like so many this cycle, is also about President Trump – his personal quest to prove that his 2016 win was no fluke, and that his popularity among GOP supporters can surmount a highly energized Democratic base and translate to down-ballot success. Mr. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Donald Trump, Jr., have each visited the state twice, hosting massive rallies to fire up the Republican base.

“You have to realize that Donald Trump is on the ticket in six weeks,” the president’s eldest son told a crowd at a Sept. 25 rally in Bozeman, warning against complacency after his father’s resounding win in the state two years ago. “I don’t want to take a two-year hiatus where nothing gets done ... because we were sitting at home, fat and happy, saying, ‘No, we’ve got everything we want, this is great.’ ”

While Senator Tester held a lead in polls throughout the year, boosted in part by the disproportionate energy and enthusiasm of Democratic voters, the race has tightened dramatically in the final stretch. This week, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted its rating for Montana Senate from “lean Democratic” to “toss-up.” 

Experts say it was always likely to be close. Tester, who won his two previous elections by no more than a few points, is hardly liberal by Democratic Party standards. But he has carved out positions that are to the left of many other Democratic senators fighting for reelection in red states – and he has been more outspoken against the president. 

In these final weeks, the high-stakes battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the sexual assault allegations against him also appear to have shifted the dynamics, by galvanizing conservative voters.

Mr. Rosendale’s campaign says that in the past week, the No. 1 issue voters have raised is the Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings and what they see as a liberal smear against Trump's nominee – a theme the campaign hammers home in a new ad. Tester announced last week that, after doing his research, he had come to the conclusion that Judge Kavanaugh would not be good for Montanans, citing concerns about his record on privacy and campaign finance, as well as the allegations of sexual assault.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Trump looks to GOP Senate candidate Matt Rosendale during a rally in Great Falls, Mont., July 5, 2018. Mr. Rosendale, the state auditor, has made his support for Trump a centerpiece of his campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.


“If things have become so polarized that folks are unwilling to look at facts in an objective fashion, that’s definitely harmful to Tester,” says David Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University and author of a book about Montana’s 2012 Senate race.

If Tester loses his seat – and, more broadly, if Trump and the GOP overcome historic midterm trends to maintain or even increase their margin in the Senate – that would have enormous implications about the staying power of Trumpism as a significant force in politics, he adds. 

“I think this race matters a lot,” Professor Parker says, as a test of “whether or not Trump is indeed changing politics as we know it, whether or not he truly has captured and tapped into building a new Republican coalition that is potentially enduring.”

Poking the hornet’s nest

Tester, who goes back to Montana to tend to his farm on weekends – and brings the meat he raises back to Washington with him – portrays himself as a salt-of-the-earth politician who votes with Trump when it’s good for Montanans and holds him accountable when needed.

As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee of Veterans Affairs, he torpedoed Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, former White House physician Ronny Jackson. In airing anonymous allegations from nearly two dozen current and former colleagues of the doctor, Tester, along with other Democrats, painted Dr. Jackson as unethical, temperamental, and unfit to lead the second-largest government agency.

He may have poked the hornet’s nest one too many times, to his own detriment, but he’s unapologetic.

“The people elected me to do my job,” he says in an interview. “That’s how I’m wired.” 

National polls have shown Rosendale pulling even with Tester in recent weeks, despite Tester raising seven times more money so far. Across the state, Tester’s small blue and orange campaign signs proliferate like mushrooms in the liberal urban centers, while Rosendale’s large navy signs can be seen miles apart on an occasional hillside or weathered fence spanning Montana’s sweeping plains. 

“To be a Democrat in Montana and win a statewide election is hard,” says Parker. “You've gotta have a special sauce.”

Crucial to a Tester victory will be the vote of young people, who are disproportionately liberal but tend to turn out in far lower numbers than older voters.  

At a recent Friday afternoon rally at Montana State University, Tester eschewed the podium altogether, propping a leg up on a chair in the front row, and chatting with several dozen students about why this election was vital for their generation. Not only did Congress’s recent tax bill, which he opposed, saddle their generation with an even larger federal debt – they also have debts of their own from getting an education.

“How much student debt are you going to leave here with? Let’s say $30,000 – am I too low?” he asks.

Heads nod. 

“$40,000? $50,000?” he offers.

“More like $60,000,” someone says. Would he, like Bernie Sanders, support free tuition?

“I think you need some skin in the game,” he answers, “because if you have skin in the game, you’re more inclined to stick with it. But $60,000 bucks is way too much.”

Widely considered likable and down-to-earth, Tester may be more conservative than many young people. But given the alternative, those who vote are likely to go with him.

“At this point, I just think it’s so important to take control of the House and Senate,” says Kevin Bell, who was a self-described ski bum until 2015, when he got energized by Bernie Sanders’ campaign and went back to school. Though the MSU political science major says he’s an anti-establishment Democrat, the stakes are too high this year not to support Tester.

“I want to do whatever it takes to stop the Trump agenda,” he says. “Normally Montana isn’t that important ... but if they want to have the Senate, they need this seat.” 

The Kavanaugh factor

Control of the Senate has taken on even greater significance since Kavanaugh became embroiled in an escalating series of sexual harassment allegations. Republicans are on the brink of achieving a decades-long conservative goal to secure a majority on the nation’s highest court. But the bitterness on both sides over how this process has unfolded suggests future nominees could face a difficult if not impossible path to confirmation if the president’s party doesn’t hold a Senate majority. 

“There is nothing that is more important than the role that a US senator has in confirming or denying – or denying – [nominations] to the Supreme Court,” Rosendale says at a rally in Bozeman, repeating the word for emphasis. He sends grumbles through the crowd when he reminds them that Tester supported Obama nominee Sonia Sotomayor, who said that owning a gun is not a fundamental right.

Rosendale is known for being fervent, even intense, in his convictions. 

Critics suggest he isn’t a real rancher or a real Montanan – and is little more than a puppet of Trump. But long before the billionaire New Yorker took American politics by storm, Rosendale was working for conservative causes in the Montana state legislature, where his fellow Republicans elected him majority leader of the Senate. 

A key issue for him is health care. Rosendale advocates repealing the Affordable Care Act – under which Montana’s premiums have increased by double digits annually for the past few years – and replacing it with more affordable options. As a state senator, he supported a bill to allow direct primary care agreements, which give individuals access to basic care by paying a doctor of their choice as little as $70 per month. Though that bill and a subsequent one were vetoed by Montana’s Democratic governor, Rosendale authorized such services after becoming state auditor.

“You don’t have that level of success without delivering results and serving the will of the people,” says campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon. “That’s what his record shows, and that’s what he wants to do in Washington.”

Still, few Rosendale supporters at the Bozeman rally could point to substantive policy achievements – instead highlighting broader character traits, describing him as a man of integrity, a Christian who is pro-Constitution and pro-family values.

“What’s he going to push? What’s his passion? I don’t know yet,” says Tom Rossetto, a former coal executive, who says he supports any Republican. “The proof is in the pudding – when they get up there [to Washington].”

As for Tester’s track record in the nation’s capital, he was rated last year by the Center for Effective Lawmaking as the 4th  most effective Democratic senator, based on the number of bills sponsored, how far they progressed, and how important they were. That success comes in part from his bipartisanship – a fact he highlighted in a campaign ad that touted his support for 13 bills that Trump signed. 

That total has since increased to 20. Of those, a dozen were bills designed to help veterans – from improving access to education and health care, to making it easier to fire bad employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He and his supporters count them off until Tester gets to eight and holds up both of his beefy hands.

“I’m out of fingers,” he says with a smile, “but I’m not done getting things done for Montanans.”

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