Tester hands Democrats 2024 boost with tough road ahead

Democrats got a shot in the arm this week with Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) decision to seek reelection.

His announcement hands Democrats a real chance at retaining a seat in GOP territory and puts them on Joe Manchin-watch as the West Virginia Democratic senator weighs his own future in a ruby-red state.

Tester, who announced his decision on Wednesday, is the first major domino to fall for Democrats, who are nervous about maintaining their one-seat majority. 

“It’s huge,” said Rodell Mollineau, who served as a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “It means it gives us our best opportunity to hold onto the U.S. Senate. … It’s about holding onto seats that might otherwise turn red with no future forecast of how they’d turn blue again.”

Democrats still face an ominous road ahead this cycle. 

They control 23 of the seats up for grabs in 2024, compared to 10 for Republicans who still have a number of paths open to nab the two seats — or just one if they win the White House — needed to take back the majority. And there are fights brewing across the map.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Wednesday, December 1, 2021 to discuss climate change provisions in the Build Back Better Act.

Tester’s reelection bid will give Democrats a solid chance at retaining a seat in GOP territory. (Greg Nash)

Question marks surround Arizona’s contest after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema became an Independent. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D) retirement in Michigan is set to spark a rough and tumble battle on both sides of the aisle to replace her. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown — Ohio’s lone statewide elected Democrat — said he would run for reelection, but the state has increasingly trended red over the past several years. And Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) is recovering from prostate cancer surgery and has yet to make his 2024 plans official, though he is expected to run once again in one of the preeminent swing states in a presidential cycle.

But Montana and West Virginia, two solidly red states with Democratic senators, were thought by many to be the easiest pickup opportunities for Republicans — depending on Tester and Manchin’s plans.

Pressed by a local West Virginia radio host on Wednesday whether he’ll seek a third full term, the West Virginia centrist maintained that he wasn’t sure. 

“I don’t know,” Manchin said, emphasizing each word.  

Tester’s decision heaps pressure on Republicans, who struggled mightily on the candidate quality front in 2022 and are looking to reverse their fortunes this cycle in Montana. 

Reps. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) and Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) are considered the main contenders to take on Tester next year, but worries persist about both. Zinke has ethics troubles from his time as Interior secretary, while Rosendale lost to Tester in 2018, in addition to losing to Zinke in a 2014 House primary.

Even Republicans acknowledge it could take a formidable opponent to unseat Tester.

“Tester is better at this than most. He knows how to speak in Montana in a way that covers up his voting record. A generic Republican gets beat by Jon Tester despite the fact that whoever is on the top of the ticket on the presidential side wins comfortably,” one GOP operative told The Hill. “We screwed this up five years ago. You can’t let an opportunity like this go to waste while in the minority.”

Of the two, Republicans worry more about the possibility of Rosendale emerging from a primary and a repeat of the 2018 contest when Tester defeated him by more than three percentage points two years after former President Trump carried the state by more than 20 points. 

“Jon Tester beats Matt Rosendale. We saw this in 2018. We can’t just have a guy with an R next to his name,” the GOP operative continued, bringing up the often-used line about Rosendale’s accent. “He’s from Maryland, and he sounds like it. They should have put that guy into speech therapy and beat the hell out of [his accent].”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) speaks to reporters regarding the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations as he arrives to the Capitol for a vote on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

Even Republicans admit that ousting Tester will not be easy to achieve. (Greg Nash)

Zinke, according to one source, is in “no rush” to make a decision, and he likely has more than a year to do so. Multiple sources also indicated Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) is looking into a potential campaign. 

However, Republicans this time around believe they have an ace up their sleeve in Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) this cycle and has made it a priority to defeat his Big Sky state colleague. 

“I don’t think anyone should underestimate [Tester], but I believe his luck is going to run out this cycle because there’s no one who knows his playbook better than the Daines team,” said Brian Walsh, who served as the NRSC’s communications director in 2012 when Tester won his first reelection bid. “He’s been very fortunate the last three times to face a candidate who was ultimately not the best candidate Republicans could put forward. If Republicans put up a decent candidate, they should win the race.”

Tester, however, has some positive winds blowing in his direction. According to a Morning Consult survey taken in January, 60 percent of Montanan respondents approve of Tester’s work. In addition, a recent poll conducted by a GOP firm shows him leading both Zinke and Rosendale, and holding a 1-point advantage over Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R), who has yet to announce whether he will seek reelection in 2024. 

Operatives in the state and nation are convinced that absent Tester, no other Democrat in the state could put up much of a fight, let alone win this race.

“Could someone meet that moment? Absolutely not,” one Montana Democratic operative told The Hill. “Unless there’s someone hidden under a rock no ones seen so far, no.” 

Tags Bob Casey Debbie Stabenow Harry Reid Joe Manchin Rodell Mollineau Ryan Zinke

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