Alex Bolton

HAVRE, Mont. — Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is emerging as President Trump’s top target a week out from Election Day.

The president, still fuming over the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman’s role in blowing up Ronny Jackson’s nomination to head the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), will return to Montana on Saturday after visiting the state a little more than two weeks ago to take another shot at Tester.

{mosads}Tester, who appeared to be cruising to reelection a few months ago, now finds himself in a dogfight, and he warned supporters at a rally in Butte, a hardscrabble mining town, that only a handful of votes could decide the race.

Despite being a two-term incumbent in a midterm election, when the president’s party historically loses seats in Congress, Tester has just a slight lead over Matt Rosendale, the state auditor, who initially wasn’t seen as a particularly strong candidate.

The race has tightened considerably since the fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which Montana Republicans say has energized their base.

Tester says his fellow Democrats didn’t do a good job of handling the sexual misconduct accusations against Kavanaugh but says Republicans also deserve blame for turning the confirmation debate into a political mud fight.

“It was botched from the beginning,” said Tester, who declined to criticize any fellow Democrats by name, saying, “I’m not going to point fingers at who botched it up.”

To try to hold off Rosendale, Tester is touting his Montana roots and years of local public service while bashing his opponent as an opportunistic Maryland transplant who is part of an influx of “Easterners” trying to “buy” the state and change its way of life.

“This is a race between myself and Matt Rosendale, make no mistake about it. Matt Rosendale doesn’t know what the hell is going on in Montana. That’s why he doesn’t talk about the issues he believes in, because he doesn’t know them,” Tester told The Hill.

Tester then poked Rosendale, who was born in Baltimore and moved to Montana in 2002, for having a distinctly East Coast accent.

“I don’t hear much of Montana and I hear a lot of Maryland,” he said.

At times it feels like Tester is taking on the entire GOP.

Besides the president, Tester is also combatting Donald Trump Jr., who during a trip to the state touting Rosendale on Friday called Tester a “fraud” and a “piece of garbage.”

At a rally in Missoula earlier this month, the president accused Tester of leading “the Democratic mob” in destroying Jackson, who withdrew his nomination after Tester publicly accused him of improper conduct as chief White House physician.

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) have also visited on behalf of Rosendale, and the Republican is also getting help from Tester’s home-state colleague, Sen. Steve Daines (R).

“The Kavanaugh confirmation process moved numbers around the country,” Daines told The Hill at a rally for Rosendale in Kalispell, a ranching town close to the jagged snowy peaks of Glacier National Park. “I don’t think Montana is an exception to that.”

Tester, in contrast, has made it clear that he doesn’t want any Democratic surrogates to come to Montana on his behalf, and he’s sought to distance himself from his party’s leadership.

Tester says he has no regrets about how he handled Jackson’s nomination, arguing that veterans, who make up about 10 percent of Montana’s population, are better off with Robert Wilkie, a former assistant secretary of Defense with a wealth of management experience.

“Not a bit, not a bit,” he said when asked if he’s second-guessed the way he handled the nominee. “Veterans have sacrificed a lot for this country. This is the second-biggest agency in the federal government. You got to have somebody who knows it, and, by the way, he removed himself, I didn’t remove anybody. I asked questions.” 

Tester has a store of goodwill with veterans in the state, and several older men with “Vietnam Veterans” caps came up to shake Tester’s hand and thank him at a rally at the Carpenters Union Hall in Butte.

He’s used his seniority to push for new Veterans Affairs facilities around the state, including a clinic in Missoula and a home in Butte. He’s also touted 15 veterans-related bills he has helped pass into law, including the VA Mission Act, which streamlined bureaucracy to improve health care and which Trump signed into law in June.

Still, David McCumber, the editor of the Montana Standard, a newspaper based in Butte, said the Jackson fight probably hurt Tester.

“I’m sure it’s hurt him because it’s given the Republicans a huge talking point,” he said. “It was the way that happened that has enabled them to make it a big talking point.”

Rosendale is pinning his campaign on Trump, who took 56 percent of the 2016 vote in Montana compared to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 36 percent. The Republican has sought to paint Tester as beholden to lobbyists and Democratic leaders more liberal than Montana’s voters.

Republicans also have sought to draw parallels between Senate Democrats’ treatment of Kavanaugh and Jackson.

Tester brushes off the criticism from the Trumps and argues that both the president and Rosendale are effectively out-of-towners touring Big Sky Country.

“These are Easterners trying to get an Easterner elected to the U.S. Senate seat in Montana,” said Tester, who argued that the VA-related bills he helped pass wouldn’t have gotten done without his work because “they didn’t get done until I got there.” 

To save his job and win a third term, Tester has crisscrossed his vast state, driving on long stretches of highway from Billings, an old railroad turned shale-oil boom town in Yellowstone County, a key swing area, to Butte, an old mining town with a history of labor fights, to two Indian reservations close to the Canadian border in central Montana.

Sporting black jeans, cowboy boots and his trademark flattop, Tester, who owns an 1,800-acre farm in north-central Montana, seems more comfortable joking with fellow dirt farmers and campaign volunteers than he does when he’s wearing a suit and tie and fending off questions about Trump from reporters in Washington.

Both sides say the race is going to come down to turnout, and there were many signs in recent days that voters are energized across the political spectrum.

Rosendale, with the help of Trump Jr., drew large crowds at rallies in Butte, Kalispell and Helena, while Tester attracted an overflow audience at the Carpenters Union Hall in Butte and two events at Native American reservations near the Canadian border were packed with people of all ages.

Tester on Monday said turnout at the Rocky Boy’s and Fort Belknap reservations will be critical to his chances.

Native Americans make up 8.6 percent of the state’s population, according to Jonathan Windy Boy, a member of the Chippewa Cree tribal council and a Democratic state representative. Windy Boy said tribal members on the Rocky Boy’s and Fort Belknap reservations have voted 90 to 95 percent in favor of Tester during early voting.

In a promising sign for Tester, tribal leaders are predicting 80 percent turnout.

“Bottom line, Indian Country is going to decide who wins the election,” Tester said.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Cory Gardner Donald Trump Donald Trump Jr. Hillary Clinton Jon Tester Rand Paul Steve Daines
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