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) TesterSenate gets to work in August — but many don’t show up Pearl Jam criticized for poster featuring dead Trump, burning White House Montana GOP Senate hopeful touts Trump's support in new ad MORE (D-Mont.) overstepped in his opposition to President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller 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 DainesSanders: Public should be ‘very concerned’ about election security in 2018 Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE Republican bill aims to deter NATO members from using Russian pipeline 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 DeVosHillicon Valley: Trump escalates feud with intel critics | Tesla shares fall after troubling Musk interview | House panel considers subpoena for Twitter's Jack Dorsey | Why Turkish citizens are breaking their iPhones Erik Prince denies back channel communication with Putin-linked official in ‘incidental’ meeting Report: Trump considering plan to privatize Afghanistan War MORE, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneySunday shows preview: Trump stokes intel feud over clearances Pentagon, GOP breathe sign of relief after Trump cancels parade Middle-class Americans can't afford another trillion financial crash MORE, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller Watergate's John Dean: White House counsel is 'doing right' by cooperating with Mueller MORE, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTurkish president blasts ‘economic coup’ amid heightened tensions with US Overnight Defense: Trump cancels military parade, blames DC for cost | DC mayor hits back | Pentagon warns China 'likely' training for strikes against US | Turkey refuses to release US pastor On The Money: Trump asks SEC to consider ditching quarterly reports | Turkish court refuses to release US pastor | Russia sanctions hearing, vote on consumer chief next week MORE and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonDems want GOP chairman to subpoena State Department over cyber docs Overnight Energy: Trump elephant trophy tweets blindsided staff | Execs of chemical plant that exploded during hurricane indicted | Interior to reverse pesticide ban at wildlife refuges Administration should use its leverage to get Egypt to improve its human rights record MORE.

He also voted against CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump: ‘Nothing bad can happen' from meeting with foreign leaders The US must not turn its back on refugees Taiwan is key to US power in Pacific 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 CarsonThe queen, Aretha Franklin, is dead Ben Carson makes the right move rolling back Obama-era housing policy NYT columnist: A tape of Trump saying N-word could make his supporters like him more MORE, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeSanders tests his brand in Florida Overnight Energy: Court orders EPA to enforce chemical safety rule | Dem says Zinke would 'sell' his grandkids for the oil industry | EPA reportedly poised to unveil climate rule replacement Washington governor says Zinke would 'sell his grandchildren for the oil industry' MORE, Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate Perry: US to become net energy exporter within 18 months New Homeland Security unit will battle threats to critical U.S. assets 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.