- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A messy, partisan Senate confirmation fight may play the deciding role in Montana’s too-close-to-call U.S. Senate race, but it may not be the fight that first comes to mind.

President Trump on Thursday will be making his third trip to the sparsely populated state, stumping in Missoula for the Republican challenger, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, or, to put it another way, stumping against two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

While both parties try to gauge the electoral fallout of the recent confirmation battle over Supreme Court Brett M. Kavanaugh, Mr. Trump’s focus here is on an earlier battle — Mr. Tester’s prominent role in torpedoing the nomination of Adm. Ronny Jackson, Mr. Trump’s White House doctor, to run the Department of Veterans Affairs this spring.

Mr. Trump fumed repeatedly on Twitter over the 62-year-old Mr. Tester’s tactics in the Jackson nomination fight, which included airing accusations of personal misconduct and excessive drinking and led Adm. Jackson to withdraw.

He repeated those charges on Twitter on Wednesday night and even compared Mr. Tester unfavorably to Justice Kavanaugh opponents.

“Ever since his vicious and totally false statements about Admiral Ron Jackson, the highly respected White House Doctor for Obama, Bush & me, Senator [Jon] Tester looks to be in big trouble in the Great State of Montana! He behaved worse than the Democrat Mob did with Justice K!,” he wrote.

Even before Wednesday night’s attack, Phil Drake, a longtime reporter for the Great Falls Tribune who is covering the race, noted the unusually personal tack Mr. Trump has taken.

“I don’t know how it is in other states, but it clearly sounds personal when the president is out here,” he said. “It’s like President Trump has put a bounty on Sen. Tester’s head.”

With three electoral votes and barely a million residents, Montanans aren’t used to the national attention, which on the Republican side has included stops by Vice President Mike Pence and first son Donald Trump Jr. this midterm campaign.

“Before President Trump started coming here, the last president I covered personally was Bush,” Mr. Drake said, then clarifying: “George H.W. Bush.”

Presidential pique aside, both Democrats and Republicans have some very practical reasons for the obsession with Montana.

Mr. Tester is one of 10 Democratic senators running this cycle in a state easily carried by Mr. Trump. A Republican pick-up in Montana would almost certainly kill any Democratic hopes of taking control of the chamber next month. Throw in a tight race for the state’s only U.S. House seat in which freshman Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte is trying to hold off a well-funded Democratic challenger, former state Rep. Kathleen Williams, and the stakes in Montana grow even higher.

A third-generation Montanan with a folksy manner and a relatively moderate voting record , Mr. Tester was not thought to be among the more vulnerable Democratic incumbents this cycle. But the few polls taken to date give him only a slight lead over Mr. Rosendale, and no surveys have been taken since Mr. Tester joined fellow Democrats in voting against Justice Kavanaugh earlier this month.

Mr. Tester has far outraised his challenger, but more than $45 million in out-of-state money on both sides has flooded into Montana, negating at least some of the incumbent’s advantage and making for wall-to-wall political advertising in the state’s very affordable media markets.

Mr. Trump appears so determined to put his imprimatur on the race that his campaign made the unusual decision to move Thursday night’s rally to a smaller venue — a hangar near the Missoula International Airport — because organizers wanted to be able to park Air Force One directly behind the president as he spoke.

Both sides acknowledge Mr. Tester may be vulnerable, but that knocking him off will not be easy. Despite Mr. Trump’s popularity, the state has a history of supporting moderate Democrats and boasts a union movement much stronger than in many other Western states.

His stump speech cites his work for veterans in the Senate, his support for gun rights, his deep roots in the state, his advocacy for Montana’s extensive public lands, and his ability to work across the aisle.

Ironically, given the president’s interest in the race, Mr. Tester may be the only Democrat on the ballot this cycle to run a full-page “Thank You Mr. President” ad in 14 state newspapers — to highlight what the ad said were 16 bills Mr. Trump signed on veterans, government waste and other topics that Mr. Tester sponsored or co-sponsored.

“One challenge for Tester is Montana’s getting more polarized, just like the rest of the nation, and also becoming more Republican,” Jeremy Johnson, a political analyst at Carroll College in Helena, told the Associated Press. “But it’s also a Democratic year. I’m not sure if that will balance out or not.”

Mr. Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, makes no apologies for his role in blocking Adm. Jackson’s VA nomination, noting he voted for Mr. Trump’s second choice to fill the post, current Secretary Robert Wilkie.

“I wouldn’t do anything different from what I did before,” he told the Great Falls Tribune recently. “Veterans are too important to me and I will fight for them every day.”

Mr. Rosendale, a Maryland transplant who moved to the state a decade ago, sports the same close-cropped “flattop” hairstyle as his Democratic rival, but insists the resemblance ends there. In addition to hewing close to Mr. Trump at his massive rallies, the 58-year-old Mr. Rosendale argues a vote for Mr. Tester is a vote for the national Democratic Party and its agenda, on issues ranging from gun control and the appointment of judges to health care.

“That’s what happens when you spend too much time in the federal government,” Mr. Rosendale argued at Saturday’s final candidates’ debate. Mr. Tester “has been there for 12 years and he thinks he can determine what is best for you and what is best for your family.”

Strikingly, while GOP surrogates have flooded the state, Mr. Tester has largely fought on his own. One advocate he did draft to campaign for him was far outside the circle of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate counterpart Charles E. Schumer — actor Jeff Bridges, the mellow, abiding “Dude” from the movie “The Big Lebowski.”

Libertarian Party candidate Rick Breckenridge also went after Mr. Tester for forgetting his roots at Saturday’s debate, noting, “I think Jon’s starting to look more like Washington than he does Montana.”

The third-party candidate may have an outsized impact on the final result: Mr. Tester won in both 2006 and 2012 without getting 50 percent of the vote statewide, with analysts saying the Libertarian vote cut into the GOP totals.

Mr. Drake, the reporter, says it’s hard to say whether Mr. Trump’s ability to excite his base at massive rallies will overcome Mr. Tester’s edge as an incumbent, but says he can already declare one winner in the race.

“The local TV stations must be having a hard time figuring out what they’ll do with all the money they’re making from ads these days,” he said. “I wish some of that would go to the newspapers too.”

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