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) TesterGOP angst grows amid Trump trade war Overnight Defense — Presented by Huntington Ingalls Industries — Pentagon approves transfer of .5B to border wall | Dems blast move | House Dem pushes Pelosi to sue over Trump's Yemen veto Pentagon approves transfer of .5B to Trump border wall from Afghan forces, other accounts MORE (D-Mont.) overstepped in his opposition to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' 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 DainesBullock: Running for Senate 'never really got me excited' Liberian immigrant among Dems planning challenges to GOP senator in Montana Export-Import Bank back to full strength after Senate confirmations 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 DeVosConsumer bureau head says Education Department blocking oversight of student loans Dem lawmaker: Betsy DeVos is 'a nice person, but boy she really is confused' Trump touts budget updates to fund Special Olympics, send astronauts to Mars MORE, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyBolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran Acting DHS secretary threatened to quit after clashing with Miller: report On The Money: Treasury rejects Dem subpoena for Trump tax returns | Companies warn trade war about to hit consumers | Congress, White House to launch budget talks next week | Trump gets deal to lift steel tariffs on Mexico, Canada MORE, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMSNBC host: Barr 'the most dangerous person' who works for Trump Chris Wallace: AG Barr 'clearly is protecting' Trump Appeals court rules Trump end of DACA was unlawful MORE, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinWhite House encouraging investment in Middle East as part of peace plan Trump, China and trade: Who blinks first? On The Money: Treasury rejects Dem subpoena for Trump tax returns | Companies warn trade war about to hit consumers | Congress, White House to launch budget talks next week | Trump gets deal to lift steel tariffs on Mexico, Canada MORE and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Defense: Trump rails against media coverage | Calls reporting on Iran tensions 'highly inaccurate' | GOP senator blocking Trump pick for Turkey ambassador | Defense bill markup next week Trump frustrated with advisers over Iran, wants to speak to leaders in Tehran: report Juan Williams: Trump's scorecard is rife with losses MORE.

He also voted against CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Dems ask former CIA chief John Brennan for Iran briefing: report 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 CarsonHUD chief Carson broke law with unauthorized purchases, GAO says Trump immigration rule could displace 55K children from public housing: HUD Harris, House Dems push for mandatory carbon monoxide detectors in public housing MORE, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? Former Wyoming GOP lawmaker mulling Senate bid to replace Enzi MORE, Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryHouse Dems propose billions in extra funding for environmental programs that Trump sought to cut Overnight Energy: States fight Trump rollback of Obama lightbulb rules | Greens seek hearing over proposed rule on energy efficiency tests | Top Dem asks GAO to investigate climate threat States fight Trump rollback of Obama lightbulb rules 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.