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) TesterCentrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter Dems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party MORE (D-Mont.) overstepped in his opposition to President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Ann Coulter blasts Trump shutdown compromise: ‘We voted for Trump and got Jeb!’ 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 DainesOvernight Health Care: Dem chair plans hearing on Medicare for all | Senate GOP talks drug prices with Trump health chief | PhRMA CEO hopeful Trump reverses course on controversial pricing proposal On The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions 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 DeVosDeVos recovering from broken pelvis, hip socket after bicycle accident Student veterans deserve better than the DeVos agenda Changes to Title IX enforcement are common sense MORE, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyOn The Money: Trump teases 'major announcement' Saturday on shutdown | Fight with Dems intensifies | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking trip to Afghanistan | Mnuchin refuses to testify on shutdown impacts The Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress On The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions MORE, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' Acting AG Whitaker's wife defends him in lengthy email to journalist Watchdog: Thousands more migrant children separated from parents than previously known MORE, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Trump teases 'major announcement' Saturday on shutdown | Fight with Dems intensifies | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking trip to Afghanistan | Mnuchin refuses to testify on shutdown impacts The case for Russia sanctions Treasury issues final rules on key part of Trump's tax law MORE and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation Trump concealed details of meetings with Putin from senior officials: report Forget the border wall, a coup in Guatemala is the real emergency MORE.

He also voted against CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump travels to Dover Air Force Base to meet with families of Americans killed in Syria Overnight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation 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 CarsonTop Trump official resigned over White House plan to withhold disaster-relief funds from Puerto Rico: report Trump taps Commerce watchdog to be new Interior inspector general DOJ probing whether Zinke lied to Interior investigators: report MORE, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Major California utility PG&E filing for bankruptcy after wildfires | Zinke hired at investment firm | Barclays to avoid most Arctic drilling financing Zinke takes job at investment firm Trump taps Commerce watchdog to be new Interior inspector general MORE, Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Pompeo in Iraq for unannounced visit GOP commissioner on federal energy panel dies 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.