- Associated Press - Thursday, April 6, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Sen. Jon Tester says he believes Montana voters will understand his opposition to Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination for U.S. Supreme Court, though he may be taking a gamble in a state that elected President Donald Trump by a 20-point margin.

Tester is one of 10 Democrats up for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won, forcing them into a difficult political position when choosing to support or oppose the president’s choice to replace Antonin Scalia on the nation’s highest court.

But in the case of Tester, who has spent more than a decade representing Montana in the Senate, most voters made up their minds about him long ago - and his decision to oppose Gorsuch only reaffirms their views.

To Tester supporters, his opposition to Gorsuch shows that the state’s senior senator votes his conscience without regard for how it will affect his election chances. To his opponents, the decision on Gorsuch confirms that Tester toes the Democratic Party line and that he is out of touch with the state’s voters who elected Trump by a 20-point margin in November.

Marlene Johnson, a 65-year-old Helena resident, said she hopes Tester’s opposition to Gorsuch will hurt his 2018 re-election bid, but she herself is already an entrenched Tester opponent. She has been glued to Fox News to track the confirmation of Gorsuch, whom she called a decent person who is qualified to sit on the Supreme Court.

“He’s definitely letting Montana down, he is letting our nation down with his decision,” Johnson said of Tester.

But for Barbara Wetherill of Helena, who opposes Gorsuch’s confirmation, Tester’s opposition will factor positively for Tester in her decision in 2018, she said.

“I like to look at what people have done in the past,” Wetherill said of how she will evaluate Tester in the voting booth.

Tester told reporters Sunday that he doesn’t believe that Montanans want a Supreme Court justice who believes corporations are people, who would loosen search-and-seizure restrictions and who would seek to influence women’s health care decisions. Tester said those are the conclusions he drew about Gorsuch after studying the judge’s past decisions and hearing from his own constituents.

“I think that Montanans have always expected me to have a reason for why I voted and I have plenty of them on Judge Gorsuch,” Tester said.

David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University, said outside groups trying to unseat Tester may try to make Gorsuch a campaign issue with television ads and fliers, but he doesn’t believe it will be important to most voters.

“We’re going to hear about it, without a doubt,” Parker said. “But is it going to resonate? Unless you’re an activist or really politically engaged, I don’t think it will.”

Tester does not yet have a Republican challenger next year after Trump plucked former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke to become Interior Department secretary. Republicans in the state and in Washington have been courting Attorney General Tim Fox, and State Auditor Matthew Rosendale is also a potential challenger.

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