Montana Sen. Jon Tester sees a world of opportunity when he looks at the 2016 Senate map — and a mountain of work to capitalize on it.
Democrats are entering an election cycle in the minority for the first time in a decade, yet the field of competitive states provides avenues back to Senate control, particularly with presidential-year turnout that historically favors the party.
In Tester’s first extensive newspaper interview since becoming chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the farmer from Big Sandy, Mont., emphasized the need to motivate voters to turn out and the challenge of recruiting strong candidates in an atmosphere of unlimited outside spending.
“We’ve got to get a good, clear message that focuses on the middle class, we’ve got to have some deliverables that we can talk about, and we’ve got to have good candidates, maybe most importantly of all,” Tester told CQ Roll Call Tuesday from his hideaway office in the Capitol basement. Flanked by incoming DSCC Executive Director Tom Lopach, who has served as the Montanan's chief of staff for five years, Tester, who officially took over Monday, said he is surrounding himself at the committee with talented operatives he knows and trusts. That also includes Deputy Executive Director Preston Elliott, who ran Tester’s 2012 re-election.
They’re taking over a committee, led for the past two cycles by Guy Cecil, that impressively picked up two seats in 2012 before watching as a Republican wave swept away nine seats this year, including Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s in a runoff last weekend .
“I’ve been through the wars with these guys,” Tester said of Lopach and Elliott. “Campaigns are tough, they’re hard. If you don’t have trust, you’re dead in the water. ... I know what their work ethic is, I know what they bring to the table, I know what skill sets they have, I know how I can talk to them, they know how they can talk to me.”
Tester has said multiple times since his appointment last month he is going to push to land strong candidates. That’s particularly important next cycle, with the party defending just 10 seats to the Republicans' 24 . Democrats need five seats to secure the majority, but only four if the party wins the White House.
The offensive opportunities include seven states President Barack Obama won twice: the president’s home state of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida and Iowa, and the targets don't end there. Even on friendly ground, Democrats could face a well-funded incumbent in each of those. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, for example, has never won re-election with less than 64 percent.
“We have an opportunity out there to win everywhere, it just depends if you get the right person to run,” Tester said. “By the way, the inverse is also true. We could lose everywhere, too, if we don’t have the right people.”
The new chairman and other DSCC leaders have already begun discussing the recruitment process, including a plan to meet with senators, House members, governors and others from the states in play about potential candidates.
“By the way, we’re open for business,” Tester said in the direction of anyone interested in running. “If folks want to come in and visit with us about it, we’re more than happy to talk about it.”
Hard work was a common refrain from Tester during the interview, as a pair of bright red boxing gloves sat on the shelf over his shoulder.
Asked about his pitch for the job to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Tester said Reid “knows I work hard.” He’s expecting the same from incoming Senate recruits, as he’s looking for candidates “that are good people willing to work hard. ... I mean, this is really a two-year commitment.”
A self-described dirt farmer, Tester, 58, lost three fingers at age 9 while grinding meat on his parents’ 1,800 acres. He flies home most weekends to tend to the same farmland, which he took over in 1978.
With the fundraising responsibilities a campaign committee chairman takes on, Tester said he’s aware of the time constraints on his farming he’ll have to work around beyond his normal duties as one of Montana's two senators.
“Oh, yeah, it’s one of the challenges I have, but you just work a little harder,” he said. “There might be a few nights I spend on the tractor and not get a lot of sleep. You just got to do it. But I think it’s part of that background of being a working Montanan, a working senator.”
His decision to man a committee dedicated solely to electing Democrats to the Senate may have puzzled some in the party back home, who witnessed him win two Senate races with less than 50 percent of the vote. That includes knocking off Republican Conrad Burns in 2006 and holding off Rep. Denny Rehberg in 2012.
He’ll be up for re-election again in 2018, and Republicans in the state already have attacked his decision to chair the DSCC. Tester brushed off the criticism, saying, “I’m pretty proud of my work ethic,” and noted he has an “agenda for Montanans.”
The politics back home aside, Tester said the job itself is a good fit for him, since he’s led his party to a Senate majority before. As state Senate minority leader in 2004, he helped Democrats pick up enough seats to take the majority and then was elected state Senate president. As a statewide candidate two years later, he picked up one of six Senate seats for Democrats, as the party won back control of the chamber for the first time in a dozen years.
Asked why he wanted to run the DSCC, Tester said, “I’ve run ... two tough races for the U.S. Senate. I know what it takes to win. I think we can bring that energy to the DSCC, and we’re going to do that. And God willing, we’ll be successful.”
Related: NRSC Chairman Roger Wicker Looks for Fast Start Script Flipped in 2016 Senate Majority Battle Congressman Considering Challenge to Rob Portman The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.