A Montana farmer with a flattop and ample lobbyist cash stands between GOP and Senate control
BIGFORK, Mont. — After seventeen years in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Jon Tester is a household name in Montana: an outspoken grain farmer, a down-and-out farmer and a carefully cultivated reputation as a moderate.
The 67-year-old lawmaker smiled and laughed his way through the crowd at a Veterans Day event in Bigfork, a small town on Flathead Lake where the population has soared in recent years. He talked to veterans who supported him and some who didn’t, then stood behind a lectern in the Bigfork High School gymnasium to promote his biggest recent achievement: expanded federal health care for millions of veterans exposed to toxic smoke in military ‘burn pits’. “
Tester has survived three close elections and weathered a changed national political landscape as the only Democrat still holding high office in Montana. The 2024 elections may bring his biggest challenge yet: Republicans, who are just two seats short of controlling the Senate, are expected to spend tens of millions on attack ads portraying him as a Washington insider who infects is with lobby money.
Expelling Tester would also strengthen a Republican lock on a state that voted overwhelmingly for Republican Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Tester entered the Senate after selling Montana voters on his authenticity, and the former high school band teacher’s message hasn’t changed much. He remains comfortable associating with union members, ranchers and veterans, has a track record of working for them, and says his heart remains firmly in his sparsely populated state, a vast region stretching from the arid Great Plains to the lush forests of the Pacific Ocean. North West.
Still, authenticity is a harder sell when you’ve become a top fundraiser in Washington. He has raised nearly $20 million for next year’s elections, putting Tester sixth among Senate candidates nationwide, according to Federal Election Commission data through September. Tester insisted that the money hasn’t changed him, that he doesn’t even know where it all comes from.
“I can’t tell you who donates to me. Even from the state of Montana, I can’t tell you who donates to me because I don’t look at that list,” he said in an interview. “It’s not important. I trust that those people believe in me and that I will continue to do the same work.”
His campaign reports show an abundance of lobbying money, the kind that rarely comes from people who don’t want something, and yet the lawmaker’s journey from outsider to fundraising behemoth has been largely a necessity. Now that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has decided not to seek another term, Tester has become a prime target for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his massive fundraising operation.
McConnell’s aspirations to become majority leader again could stall if a primary fight emerges between his anointed candidate in Montana, US Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, and US Representative Matt Rosendale, one of the far-right members of the House of Representatives who is colleague -Republican Kevin McCarthy has been ousted from California as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Dozens of state lawmakers have encouraged Rosendale to join. He took on Tester in 2018 and lost despite immense pressure from then-President Trump.
Republican unity next November would narrow Tester’s path to victory, especially if he is branded a Washington insider. As he has grown in seniority and influence — and election spending has exploded across the country — the flood of campaign cash that has flowed into Tester has left him vulnerable to attack.
The potency of the authenticity issue, even within his own party, became clear at a recent town hall hosted by Tester in the Democratic stronghold of Butte, where a group of activists repeatedly pressured him to call for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas. . The lawmaker, who heads the Senate defense subcommittee, rejected their pleas, saying Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.
That alarmed Noah Sohl of Missoula, who said he voted for Tester twice and supported the Democrat’s last reelection effort by making phone calls and registering voters. The nursing student drew a straight line between donations to Tester’s campaign by defense industry lobbyists and Tester’s opposition to a ceasefire.
After becoming chairman of the panel in 2021, Tester received more than $160,000 in contributions from employees and committees representing the defense industry. The donations came at a crucial time for both the defense budget and Lockheed Martin, which benefited from $1.8 billion for the F-35 fighter jet that Tester’s subcommittee pushed for as part of a military spending package.
Sohl promised not to help Tester this election if he did not change his position on a ceasefire. Sohl acknowledged that this could benefit Republicans.
“They’re all licking their teeth about the fact that there’s a rising group among his (Tester’s) voters that doesn’t agree with him,” Sohl said. “His big thing is, ‘I’m not like those Republicans. “I’m a true Montanan and I’m just going to Washington to fight for the people who voted for me.” But it seems he has lost his balance.”
Tester rejected any idea that campaign donations influence his vote or that he has fundamentally changed since 2006. He also brushed off the increased pressure on him since Manchin’s departure.
Veterans issues are resonating in Montana, which has the second-highest percentage of veterans in the U.S. among the civilian adult population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Tester is chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
“I take my cues directly from the veterans of this state,” Tester told the gathering at Bigfork High School.
In the front row was Terry Baker, who served in the Vietnam War and voted against Tester when he first ran. Tester’s support of veterans turned Baker into a supporter. He said the lawmaker is the only Democrat he has ever voted for.
“He has been a tremendous asset to all veterans groups,” said Baker, 72, of Kalispell. “The fact that there are a huge number of veterans in Montana will help Tester.”
Montana itself has changed significantly since Tester came to power. There is an influx of newcomers from Arizona, Washington State, California and Texas. Farmland is giving way to subdivisions, even as cities like Bozeman and Missoula struggle with housing crises.
The state’s politics have shifted to the right. When Tester entered the Senate, Democrats held nearly every statewide elected office in Montana, from governor, secretary of state and attorney general to two of the state’s three seats in Congress. Since the 2020 election, this has been thanks to Tester’s seat.
Republican lawmakers have maneuvered unsuccessfully to hinder his chances for a fourth term this spring. They proposed changes to election rules that would allow only the top two candidates to advance to next year’s Senate primaries. That likely would have kept third-party candidates out of the general election and could have swayed the election for Republicans.
Previous races for Tester’s seat were so close that some Republicans blamed third-party candidates for the Democrat’s victories. Concerns that this could happen again cannot be ruled out. Montana Libertarian Party Chairman Sid Daoud announced Monday that he will enter next year’s Senate race, raising Republican fears of a third-party spoiler.
Tester rode to office on the unpopularity of the Iraq War and a specter of scandal that plagued his predecessor, three-term Sen. Conrad Burns, over the Republican’s close ties to “super lobbyist” Jack Abramoff. Abramoff was jailed for conspiracy and fraud. No charges have been filed against Burns, a former livestock auctioneer who dismissed criticism of the case as “old political nonsense.”
Challenges to Tester’s authenticity dogged him during the 2018 election cycle, when he was for a time the largest recipient of lobbyist donations among members of Congress. According to the research group OpenSecrets, he currently ranks second with $407,000 in contributions from lobbyists, just behind Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell in Washington state.
These direct contributions do not include the millions of dollars expected to be spent on the race by outside groups, including McConnell’s formidable operation and similar Democratic organizations.
So far, there’s no indication that the money flowing Tester’s way influenced his decision-making or that he did anything wrong. Still, Republicans highlighted ties to lobbyists in an ad campaign launched earlier this month declaring that “After nearly two decades in Washington, Jon Tester has changed.”
Tester invited anyone who thinks he has changed to come pick rocks at the farm he runs with his wife Sharla near the small town of Big Sandy. He said he remains aware that in Montana, every connection with voters is critical.
According to his way of thinking, that makes authenticity something that money cannot buy.
“This is an eye-to-eye situation,” he said.