The Democratic senator is trying to hang on in Trump country, but the president is coming after him this weekend.
BUTTE, Mont. — Jon Tester would be a near lock for reelection if Montana’s Senate race came down to the classic test of which candidate voters would rather have a beer with.
In fact, devouring a slice of carrot cake at a diner last week, the burly farmer-turned-Democratic senator says he could use a cold one right then.
“I’d have a beer, but beer doesn’t go very well” with his afternoon treat, Tester explains after a long day of campaigning.
Unfortunately for him, Republicans and President Donald Trump are determined to make the race anything but a beer test between Tester and Matt Rosendale, the intense and buttoned-up Republican candidate, who hails from Maryland. To the extent it’s a popularity contest, they want it to be Tester vs. Trump, who carried the state by 20 points in 2016 and remains popular there today.
Tester’s down-home, informal style is his biggest strength as he barnstorms the state, trying to personally connect with just enough voters to send him back to the Senate for six more years. But Tester has long infuriated the GOP, which has tagged him as a liberal out of step with Montana. The difference now is that they have a president willing to go all out to defeat him.
Trump is out for revenge after Tester helped derail his pick to run the Veterans Affairs department, Ronny Jackson, earlier this year. And now a deluge of money from outside groups and visits from anti-Tester surrogates, including Trump himself, threaten to tip a race that everyone agrees is tightening.
Though Tester has a narrow lead, the race is statistically tied, according to new Republican polling viewed by POLITICO. Republicans think a late surge of GOP enthusiasm tied to Trump’s visit this coming weekend could produce a major upset of a two-term incumbent who has never cleared 50 percent of the vote.
Tester is upbeat about his prospects, saying he’s been preparing for this moment ever since the 2016 election.
“We knew it was going to be a close race two years ago. … That’s just the nature of the beast,” Tester said. ”Do I think I’m going to win? Damn right I think I’m going to win.”
Tester is relying on his dry sense of humor, boisterous laugh and penchant for salty language to make his case that no one knows Montana better than he does. The farmer from Big Sandy was raised here, while his opponent has a Maryland accent rivaling Barbara Mikulski’s Baltimorese.
Yet Tester has poked the president more than any other endangered Democratic senator. And though Tester is a relative moderate in today’s Senate, his state has gone from nearly supporting Barack Obama in 2008 to full-on Trump country.
Tester is “a likable guy in Montana. But when he gets to Washington he votes different,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh, whose organization has spent $5 million to elect Rosendale. The Republican may not have Tester’s charm, McIntosh added, but at least “people know what they’re going to get with him.”
If Tester is relaxed and confident about his campaign strategy, it’s harder to tell how Rosendale is feeling. His campaign tentatively agreed to make the state auditor and insurance commissioner available for an interview during a swing through the western part of the state, but then reneged.
Tester has vastly outraised Rosendale, and he and his allies long ago made advertising reservations as a bulwark against a late Republican push. But when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court over Tester’s opposition, the GOP saw an opening to defeat the incumbent after months of viewing the race as a long shot.
The Senate Leadership Fund, linked to Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, dropped $3 million for Rosendale for the final two weeks of the campaign. Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have campaigned for Rosendale, and a Paul-linked PAC is airing ads here. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is coming on Friday, and the president is set to make his fourth stop here Saturday.
The state’s other senator, Republican Steve Daines, is campaigning against Tester, though more gently than other Rosendale surrogates. Daines told Montanans in campaign appearances over the weekend that “we need to send a different senator” to Washington, but insisted in an interview he is trying to remain “respectful” of Tester and doesn’t ding him by name.
Everyone agrees the race is likely to be so close that a winner won’t be declared until Nov. 7.
Many Montanans vote by mail, early votes that are likely to favor Tester, according to people in both parties. The Republican path to victory is narrow but plausible, with Trump driving up GOP turnout on Election Day with a last-minute round of attacks on Tester.
Living in a land of cattle ranches, jagged mountains and cities often separated by at least an hour of what locals call “windshield time” in the car, Montanans pride themselves on their independence from big government, big business and national politics. But Tester’s race is a referendum on whether a state-specific, parochial campaign still works against a national GOP message.
The state isn’t uniformly hostile to Democrats. As Trump romped in Montana two years ago, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock was reelected by 4 points.
“The Republican Party tries to nationalize elections, as opposed to actually looking at what people” care about in the state, Bullock said in an interview. “Elections ought to be about are they going to represent the interests of your state versus nationalizing it to [where] it’s just all about President Trump.”
While Rosendale calls in high-profile allies, Tester is his own best surrogate. He riffs on how he wants affordable education and better care for veterans, and leads the crowd at the end of each event in a call-and-response chant of “Jon!” and “Tester!”
It’s a folksy turnout operation that contrasts sharply with Rosendale’s. The Republican frequently reminds voters that “the president’s agenda is on the ballot” and has lined up well-known supporters to skewer Tester.
“This race is between myself and Matt Rosendale. They want to try and make it bigger than that,” Tester, 62, said, dinging Rosendale for seeking five different offices this decade. “This guy’s looking for the next job when he gets to it. Public service is about making your state a better place. … I don’t think he understands Montana.”
Rosendale’s biggest liability is that he’s from Maryland, origins that are obvious as soon as he starts talking. Former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said the 58-year-old Republican comes across like “an interloper, a carpetbagger.”
Republicans know Tester’s down-home persona works for him, so they are challenging his authenticity in response. They’ve hit him for owning a row house in Washington, D.C., for taking campaign contributions from lobbyists and for what Trump Jr. calls a “humble farmer” act.
The attacks between the candidates have an only-in-Montana quality. Tester has savaged Rosendale for touting his rancher credentials but owning no cattle; Rosendale’s campaign says he leases the land at his ranch to a herd. Rosendale has gone after Tester for not having a hunting license and having a “D” grade from the National Rifle Association.
In Montana, like every Senate battleground, Republicans are relentlessly tying Tester to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Tester said Schumer is doing as good a job as anyone could, but he wouldn’t say explicitly that he’ll back the New Yorker as leader if he wins.
“Who knows. I might run,” Tester joked as an aide looked on nervously.
Tester’s unpretentious personality and hulking physical stature — he’s built like an offensive lineman — stand out in the Capitol. As does his attire, especially a collection of ugly ties.
The man, said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), is “clearly not a fashion savant.”
“Some people focus on the way he looks and the number of fingers he has,” Bennett added, referring to the three fingers Tester lost to a meat-grinder accident at age 9. “It’s more than that, it’s his values. … His loss would be a tragedy for the Senate because he’s got a unique perspective.”
Tester has taken flak from liberals for votes to ease regulations on big banks. But overall, he’s resisted any temptation to tack toward Trump in order to ease his reelection path.
Rhetorically, Tester stays away from attacking the president or discussing him much at all in his campaign. He voted against Trump’s Supreme Court nominees and tax cuts, and has been firmer in protecting Obama-era regulations than other endangered Democrats from red states.
All told, he’s given Republicans across the spectrum plenty to unite in opposition against. There aren’t many races in which the Club for Growth, Chamber of Commerce, Senate leaders, Paul and the NRA are all on the same page. But Montana is one of them.
Election handicappers have long forecast Tester as having a significant edge. But Tester always knew there would be a late push to oust him. He said he looks at the late money spent in the state as “economic development. Bring it in.”
With his spirits still high amid the race of his life, Tester finishes his carrot cake and a server cuts a slice of chocolate.
“Oh man, don’t do it to me. You’re going to kill me,” Tester said. But he doesn’t say no.