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) TesterTester: Our forefathers would not have tolerated Trump asking Ukraine to investigate Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Fallout from day one of Trump impeachment hearing Veterans face growing threat from online disinformation MORE (D-Mont.) overstepped in his opposition to President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' 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 DainesPerry replacement moves closer to confirmation despite questions on Ukraine Fallout from Kavanaugh confirmation felt in Washington one year later Conservatives offer stark warning to Trump, GOP on background checks 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 forgives 1,500 student loans amid federal lawsuit Warren campaign launches 'a calculator for the billionaires' after Gates criticism Education Department finalizes new regulations to relax college-accreditation requirements MORE, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyLive coverage: House holds third day of public impeachment hearings Impeachment witness: Ukraine 'gradually came to understand that they were being asked to do something' Impeachment guide: The 9 witnesses testifying this week MORE, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: Ukraine's not the only outrage To understand death behind bars, we need more information White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations MORE, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinNegative interest rates are uncalled for in today's strong economy House passes stopgap as spending talks stall On The Money: Supreme Court temporarily blocks House subpoena of Trump financial records | Trump touts 'cordial' meeting with Fed chief | Stopgap funding measure includes census money, military pay raise MORE and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTillerson: Using American aid for 'some kind of personal gain [is] wrong' Nikki Haley fires the first shot in the GOP's post-Trump war State Dept. watchdog: Official's firing was case of political retaliation MORE.

He also voted against CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard Pompeo2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Netanyahu calls Trump administration reversal on Israeli settlements a 'huge achievement' UN pushes back on US reversal on Israeli settlements 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 CarsonNY attorney general to investigate alleged Long Island housing discrimination Ben Carson accuses Maxine Waters of 'shamelessness,' hypocrisy on homelessness Trump launches effort to boost support among black voters MORE, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE, Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryOvernight Energy: Mark Ruffalo pushes Congress on 'forever chemicals' | Lawmakers spar over actor's testimony | House Dems unveil renewable energy tax plan | Funding for conservation program passes Senate hurdle Volker: I 'cringe' when I hear 'three amigos' Live coverage: House holds third day of public impeachment hearings 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.