CROW AGENCY, Mont. — Asked how they’re feeling about their races, most candidates will jump at the chance to express unbridled — and sometimes unfounded — enthusiasm.
Not Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
“I feel OK,” he said after breakfast on the Crow Reservation in eastern Montana last week.
Of the 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states that President Donald Trump won in 2016, Tester looks safer than at least four of his peers. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his race against Republican state auditor Matt Rosendale Tilts Democratic.
But having never won more than 50 percent of the vote in his previous two Senate elections, Tester’s not taking anything for granted.
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Trump carried Montana by double digits, and he’s expected to return to the state soon to campaign for Rosendale. Continued outside spending in this race shows neither side is writing it off.
The race will be a good test of whether personality and brand — in this case, Tester’s — can help Democrats overcome a Senate map that favors Republicans. If the Senate election is about the two candidates, observers from both parties say Tester could hold on. But if the race becomes a referendum on Trump, Rosendale could be in position to unseat the two-term senator.
With the GOP holding a razor-thin majority in the Senate, knocking off Tester could provide some cushion for Republicans as Democrats try to flip a small number of GOP-held seats.
A unique state
Rosendale’s two most recent ads are entirely footage of Trump speaking at a rally in Great Falls earlier this summer. Rosendale doesn’t ever speak, except for saying he approves the message at the end.
Outwardly, at least, he feels confident about the race.
“I’m thrilled. I really am thrilled,” he said last week, sitting down for an interview in the State Capitol after wrapping up a monthly land board meeting. He thinks his record of cutting regulations and spending in the state — first in the legislature — will serve him well.
Republicans who are optimistic about this race think Trump’s popularity will make it more difficult than it has been in the past for Tester to put together the small coalition of Republicans he needs to win. The Green Party candidate, who could have taken votes from Tester, is not likely to be on the ballot this fall after Democrats fought to have the party line removed.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Monday released a poll showing 54 percent of likely voters approved of the job Trump is doing. The same survey gave Rosendale a 2-point lead over Tester, within the margin of error. A Democrat familiar with polling in the race said Tester was up 8 points in a survey that came back on Aug. 17.
Trump may have carried this state by 21 points — more than he carried Indiana or Missouri — but Montana is a unique place where party loyalties aren’t homogenous. The state’s junior senator, Steve Daines, is a Republican, as is its at-large congressman, Greg Gianforte. But like Tester, Gov. Steve Bullock is a Democrat.
Republicans are fully aware that Montana re-elected a Democratic governor, albeit by a smaller margin, the same year it voted for Trump.
“It’s a more personality-driven race,” one national Republican said of the Senate contest.
And that’s not necessarily a good thing for Republicans when Rosendale, a former Maryland land developer, is running against Tester, a working farmer whose campaign leans heavily into him being a native Montanan who lost three of his fingers in a meat grinder.
“There’s definitely work we have to do to prove that Tester is no longer that guy,” the national Republica said.
Tester regularly touts the number of bills he’s written that the president has signed. Republicans thought things might have shifted in their direction when Tester vocally opposed Trump’s Veterans Affairs nominee and the president turned on him. Democrats, though, cast that as an example of Tester’s independent brand.
If they’re going to defeat Tester, Republicans say their playbook is talking about how, in the words of one Club for Growth ad, Tester has “gone Washington.”
They’ve got potentially compelling proof points — he was the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2016 cycle, has been a top recipient of lobbyist cash, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and owns a townhouse in D.C. — all of which could make him look swampy in ads.
The NRSC’s first ad in the race, which launched in mid-August, compares Tester to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “He may look like Montana, but he votes like them,” the narrator says. A subsequent ad is all about illegal immigration and national security.
But capitalizing on those attacks is a tall order, especially when Rosendale isn’t exactly Mr. Montana, said Jake Eaton, who managed former GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg’s losing Senate campaign against Tester in 2012.
“Rosendale is a flawed vessel to take advantage of some of the hits on Tester,” Eaton said.
“Even if they can make Matt likable, they still have to make Tester unlikeable. And we spent $10 million trying to do that,” he added.
Rehberg, and most of the GOP establishment in Montana, backed former judge Russ Fagg in the GOP Senate primary while the Club and some conservative senators backed Rosendale, who ended up winning by 5 points.
Tester’s schedule often revolves around harvest on the farm in Big Sandy. When touring the parade lineup at Crow Fair last weekend, there was something almost as interesting to him as the people he spoke to: the tractors and trucks. Tester wanted to know about the engines and routinely bent over to inspect the tires.
Rosendale likes trucks, too. He drives a 2500 Dodge Ram. When he moved to Montana in 2002, he settled in Glendive, where he says he was ranching “about as far away from the political scene as you can get.” He sports the same flattop haircut as Tester, and his first Senate ad was even reminiscent of Tester’s first Senate ad in 2006, in which he played up his signature coif.
But Democrats have seized on his Maryland roots with even Tester calling him “Maryland Matt.”
Rosendale is upfront about moving into the state. His origins, and especially the Baltimore accent, came up in the 2014 primary for the at-large House race, where he came in third. He touts his previous electoral wins for the state House and the state Senate and the fact that his peers in the state Senate elected him majority leader.
“I will tell you there’s 262,000 people across this state that have already voted for me, and they really don’t care where I was born,” Rosendale said, citing the number of people who voted for him for auditor.
But Democratic attacks go beyond typical carpetbagging charges, which may not be as potent these days since Gianforte, who’s from New Jersey, won last year, and plenty of voters are from out of state, too.
Rosendale’s past as a land developer plays into the hands of Democrats who have used public lands as a political wedge issue for years. Likewise, his role as state insurance commissioner has allowed Democrats to argue that he’s signing off on higher health insurance rates, even if he doesn’t actually have control over setting rates.
He’s leaned into ranching as part of his political brand, but that’s caused him problems, too. The lack of another brand — for cattle — was part of an investigation from Talking Points Memo earlier this year that found that he didn’t actually own any.
Asked last week if he’s since acquired any cattle, Rosendale didn’t answer.
“I’ll tell ya, come visit me at the ranch,” he said after this reporter tracked him down at a public meeting in Helena, 400 miles away from Glendive.
Rosendale spoke about the work he’s done rebuilding the ranch and branding his neighbors’ cattle on his property, then challenged Tester to a fence-building contest to see “who’s a rancher.”
Democrats have laughed off that challenge, mocking Rosendale for not knowing the difference between a farmer and a rancher.
But in this environment in Montana, Democrats aren’t laughing off the threat Rosendale poses.
“We have to plan for it to be that close,” Tester said.
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