Tester moves back to top of GOP Senate hit list

Tester moves back to top of GOP Senate hit list
© Greg Nash

Republicans think Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterTrump signs VA reform bill without Democratic co-author The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Primary results give both parties hopes for November GOP support growing for anti-Trump trade bill MORE (D-Mont.) overstepped in his opposition to President TrumpDonald John TrumpEx-ethics chief calls on Trump to end 'monstrous' migrant policies Laura Bush blasts Trump migrant policy as 'cruel' and 'immoral' US denies report of coalition airstrike on Syria MORE’s pick for secretary of Veterans Affairs and that it could breathe new life into his Montana Senate race.

Tester hasn’t been seen as a top target for Senate Republicans in a cycle where they have numerous pickup opportunities, but Republicans say that may have changed this week.

Trump is vowing that Tester will pay a steep political price for his takedown of VA nominee Ronny Jackson, especially given the president’s 2016 victory in Montana by 20 points — and it’s an argument being echoed by Republicans.

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“I don’t think you want to be the tip of the spear of the anti-Trump movement in a state that voted so overwhelmingly for President Trump,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.

If Tester is sweating the attention from Trump, however, he wasn’t showing it on Thursday.

Asked if he was concerned about his reelection, he said: “I’m focused on doing my job as a U.S. senator. My job as a U.S. senator is to make sure we have the best VA secretary possible.”

Tester, who was first elected to the Senate in 2006, has never won more than 49 percent of the vote.

This year he’ll face a GOP candidate and a rival from the Green Party who could potentially peel off liberal voters.

At the same tie, Republicans are facing a bitter, four-way fight in the GOP primary to take on Tester — which could benefit the incumbent.

Montana Auditor Matt Rosendale, businessman Troy Downing, former Judge Russell Fagg and state Sen. Al Olszewski are battling for the GOP nomination.

Rosendale has been seen as a favorite in the race, though opponents are already using the fact that he moved to Montana two decades ago from Maryland to argue he’s not a genuine Montanan.

Regardless of that strife, Republicans in Washington think Tester’s front-and-center role in the battle over Jackson can be used against him this fall.

“There have been a lot of phone calls this morning and some concerns about the lack of respect that was shown to an admiral,” said Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesHillicon Valley: DHS gets new cyber chief | White House warns lawmakers not to block ZTE deal | White nationalists find home on Google Plus | Comcast outbids Disney for Fox | Anticipation builds for report on FBI Clinton probe McConnell will ask Cornyn to stay on GOP leadership team Trump signs Dodd-Frank rollback MORE, a Republican and Tester’s fellow Montana senator.

He noted phone calls to his office and Montana radio stations complaining about Tester’s handling of Jackson.

These critics question whether Tester embarrassed Jackson unnecessarily by circulating a memo that described Jackson’s alleged misconduct in cringe-worthy detail.

The document asserted, for example, that Jackson, the physician to the president, earned the nickname “Candyman” because he was so loose in doling out prescription medication to White House staff, often without proper paperwork.

It also alleged that Jackson had a private stash of controlled substances, wrote prescriptions that other doctors would not authorize, had an explosive temper, bullied colleagues, exhibited drunkenness while on duty and once wrecked a government vehicle while intoxicated.

Tester on Thursday cast his actions as the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee as responsible stewardship.

He said he was only trying to protect veterans in his state and around the country and that politics had nothing to do with his vetting of Jackson’s record.

“It’s not political. I’m focused on making sure we have the best person possible to run the VA. It’s a very, very important agency. We’ve been at war for 17 years. Our veterans deserve to have what they were promised,” he told reporters.

Montana has the third-highest percentage of veterans per capita in the country, which makes Tester’s position atop the Veterans Affairs' Committee a selling point.

Despite Tester’s opposition to Jackson, he says he has worked with Trump and Republican colleagues to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has become a hot political issue since it was revealed in 2014 that agency staff falsified records to hide how long veterans had to wait for medical appointments.

Tester has voted for 14 of Trump’s other nominees to the VA, and the president has signed 13 of Tester’s bills into law, including eight bills addressing veterans’ issues.

On other Cabinet members, however, Tester has not been a rubber stamp.

Tester voted against eight of Trump’s initial Cabinet picks, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosVoters should keep eye on 2018 races for state attorneys general Dem lawmakers demand review of Education Department ethics program over official tied to for-profit colleges Restoring the power of the purse MORE, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyTrump to nominate budget official as next consumer bureau chief Trump close to nominating CFPB chief: report On The Money: Trump imposes B in tariffs on China | China blasts 'fickle' Trump, promises payback | Trump to name consumer bureau director next week MORE, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLaura Bush blasts Trump migrant policy as 'cruel' and 'immoral' Merkley leads Dem lawmakers to border amid migrant policy outcry DHS secretary defends Trump administration's migrant policies MORE, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinSpotlight falls on Russian threat to undersea cables The Hill's Morning Report — 'Sobering' IG report damages FBI Trump poised to slap tariffs on billion in Chinese imports MORE and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonNorth Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report North America wins 2026 bid to host World Cup after lobbying from Trump Trump, Tillerson pledged to ease travel ban to win World Cup bid MORE.

He also voted against CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoEven without hostility, North Korea diplomacy means mistrust and verify North Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report Trump rattles Pentagon with Korea war games decision MORE, and then voted “no” on Pompeo’s nomination as secretary of State on Thursday.

Tester backed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonAn ode to fathers Ben Carson walks back plan to triple rent for poor Ben Carson's rent increases can empower domestic abusers MORE, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeZinke blatantly disregards Trump’s opposition to ‘horror show’ elephant trophy hunting Overnight Energy: Spending bill targets Pruitt | Ryan not paying 'close attention' to Pruitt controversies | Yellowstone park chief learned of dismissal through press release Yellowstone superintendent officially learned of dismissal through press release MORE, Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Energy: DNC to reject fossil fuel donations | Regulators see no security risk in coal plant closures | Senate committee rejects Trump EPA, Interior budgets DNC to reject fossil fuel company donations Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures MORE and 11 other original Trump Cabinet nominees.

David C.W. Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University, says Tester will have a tough race in November but not as tough as his 2012 reelection, when then-President Obama, who lost Montana by 13 points, was atop the ballot.

“There’s no way that Jon Tester has an easy path to victory in the fall. It’s always going to be hard for a person like Jon Tester, a Democrat, in this state,” he said.

But Parker doesn’t think Tester will be hurt by the Jackson nomination because Republicans agreed that he was not qualified to run an agency with 36,000 employees and a $186 billion budget. He previously managed a staff of 70.

“They’re going to make an issue of it. They’re going to make an issue of every time Jon Tester does something that doesn’t support Trump. On the other hand, he’s had 13 bills signed by Trump,” Parker added. “People like Jon Tester because he’s independent minded.”

He suspects the veterans who called into Daines’s office and radio stations to complain about Tester’s handling of Jackson were probably Republicans and that the key for Tester is to win independent voters by a healthy margin.