Politics & Policy

In Montana, the GOP Aims to Nationalize the Senate Race

Senator Jon Tester outside Imerys Talc America Inc. in Three Forks, Montana, October 13, 2018. (Jim Urquhart/REUTERS)
Challenger Matt Rosendale takes at aim at the incumbent Jon Tester, a thoroughgoing Montanan but a Democrat in an increasingly red state.

Understand two things about Montana senator Jon Tester (D.). He tends to his grandfather’s old plot of land; and, despite being in office for two terms, he has never won more than 50 percent of the statewide vote. Repeated enough in the national press to become clichés, these facts nonetheless point to two competing forces in the Senate contest between the incumbent Tester and the Republican challenger Matt Rosendale: Will Tester’s brand as an authentic Montanan be enough to save his seat in a state that is red and getting redder?

Somewhat overlooked, the race in Montana doesn’t appear quite as close as the races in Arizona, Nevada, Missouri, Florida, and Indiana. Tester holds a four-point lead in the polling average over Rosendale, and has outspent him by more than $10 million. But polls show Tester’s support topping out in the 46-to-48-point range, and Burgess Everett reported Wednesday in Politico that an internal Republican poll has the race statistically tied. Complicating things further, Libertarian-party candidate Rick Breckenridge threw his support behind the Republican yesterday, in response to election mailers sent by an unknown group assailing Rosendale on privacy grounds. (The mailers encouraged readers to support Breckenridge instead but ended up angering the candidate, who presented his endorsement of Rosendale as a rejection of “dark money.”)

That could shift a critical share of voters to the Republican’s side. In 2012, 6 percent of voters opted for Libertarian candidate Dan Cox in a race Tester won by four percentage points. On the other hand, says David Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University, Breckenridge’s support does not appear to be as sizable as Cox’s was, and a large share of ballots have already been cast. In an MSU mail poll whose results were released last week, Parker found that roughly one-third of Breckenridge’s supporters disapprove of Trump’s presidency. Any Breckenridge Effect, he argues, will be attenuated.

Montana has trended Republican in recent years. Montanans voted for Donald Trump by a 21-point margin in 2016, and the president’s approval rating is higher than that of either Tester or Steve Bullock, the Democratic governor. In 2014, the GOP held only two of eight federal and state offices; now it holds six. But the state is far from monolithic. Many of the fewer than 700,000 registered voters tend to galvanize around single issues rather than identify strongly with a party. National issues matter, of course, but public-land use, gun rights, hunting and fishing access, health care, veterans’ affairs, and agriculture all hold outsized importance.

So does candidate quality. According to Travis Kavulla, vice chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission, “you can expect a lot of voters to have actually met one or both of these candidates personally.” That works in Tester’s favor, because in a onetime frontier state that now places a high value on generational ties to the land, he is every bit an authentic Montanan. His family ties go back generations, he lost three fingers in an accident when he was nine, and he speaks in the state vernacular. This branding is important in the state, says University of Montana professor Robert Saldin. “Everyone makes a point to tell you how many generations their family has been here,” he says.

Accordingly, the Tester campaign has attacked Rosendale, a former real-estate developer from Maryland who still sports an Eastern Maryland accent, characterizing him as an interloper, a hobbyist rancher who moved to the state for opportunistic reasons. It’s been a reliable line of attack for Democrats, even though Rosendale, currently state auditor, has lived in Montana since 2002. Tester has struggled to beat back his own allegations of dual loyalty, however, as his affiliation with D.C.-area lobbyists comes under increasing scrutiny.

Notwithstanding Tester’s built-in advantages and favorable name recognition, he’s been dragged down for a simple reason: He’s a Democrat who acts like one. Rosendale’s goal is clearly to nationalize the race, and there’s plenty to work with, from Tester’s conspicuous No vote on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation to his general approach to judicial confirmations to his softening reputation on gun rights. Tester has attempted to carve out a niche on veterans’ issues, an obvious move in a state with one of the largest per capita populations of veterans in the country. But the president with heated tongue has blamed Tester for sinking Ronny Jackson, his defeated nominee for veterans’-affairs secretary.

Trump has held several rallies in the state and is visiting again this weekend, holding a rally in Bozeman. “I’m not sure it helps,” says Parker, pointing to lackluster support for Rosendale among independents. Still, playing up the national stakes of the election appears to be the Rosendale campaign’s best bet. That Tester has managed to hang on to his seat for this long is a testament to his skill as a campaigner and his favorable reputation. Rosendale’s challenge is to convince enough Montanans that their senator should represent more than just the state’s aesthetics.

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