In Tester vs. Rosendale, Montanans are voting on land and independence

In Tester vs. Rosendale, Montanans are voting on land and independence

President Trump Makes Third Trip to Campaign in Montana

AP Photo/Matthew Brown AP Photo/Matthew Brown X Story Stream recent articles Video: Global Warming Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit … Article: Global Warming Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit … Article: Global Warming Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit … Entry: Global Warming Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit … Video: Global Warming Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit … BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Outside groups and individual donors have poured more than $45 million into Montana’s U.S. Senate race as President Donald Trump prepares a third trip to the Big Sky state in his crusade to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

The contest is on pace to be the most expensive in Montana history, and it’s been driven by Trump’s apparent personal interest in Tester’s defeat and his efforts to ensure Republicans keep power in the Senate.

Republican challenger and Trump loyalist Matt Rosendale is far behind in fundraising. But he’s stayed competitive with $14 million spent by deep-pocketed conservative groups on his behalf, largely on ads attacking Tester on guns, immigration and taxes, according to an Associated Press review of spending reports.

Tester says it’s a case of outside interests trying to influence Montana politics. But he also has out-of-state backers: Political committees representing conservation groups, hospitals and banks.

Trump targeted Tester for defeat after the Democrat made allegations public that derailed the president’s Veteran Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson in April. The allegations against the White House doctor included drunken behavior, overprescribing prescription drugs and fostering a hostile work environment. Jackson has denied the accusations.

Trump tweeted late Wednesday that Tester had made “vicious and totally false statements” about Jackson and that the Democrat “looks to be in big trouble in the Great State of Montana!”

Trump is expected to again go on the attack against Tester during a Thursday campaign rally for Rosendale at the Missoula airport. It’s the latest in a parade of White House visits to Montana that have included Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr.

Montana voters backed Trump by 20 percentage points in 2016. Rosendale, currently serving as state auditor and insurance commissioner, has staked his campaign on a bet that those voters will come out for him in November.

Like Trump, Rosendale has sought to capitalize on anger over the Supreme Court confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh — by attempting to draw parallels with Tester’s actions involving Ronny Jackson.

“The people across the state have witnessed the tactics of Washington Democrats — which Jon Tester has clearly become a part of — simply trying to smear people and distort facts and maintain power,” Rosendale said in an interview.

Tester voted against confirming Kavanaugh, citing his stance on campaign finances and personal privacy, and the sexual assault allegations against the judge by Christine Blasey Ford.

The Democrat rejected the argument that he’s changed since he took office and said Republicans employed similar strategies during the campaigns that he won in 2006 and 2012.

“In order to beat me you’ve got to make me into something I’m not. And that’s what they’ve done their level best to do,” Tester said. “Look, Montanans know who I am, they know I’m a lifetime Montanan, they know I understand rural America, they know I understand public lands and not privatizing them.”

The race could soon surpass the state’s previous most costly election, when $47 million was spent leading to Tester’s narrow win over former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in 2012.

Outside spending in this cycle already exceeds $25 million, according to the AP’s review. That figure includes more than $1 million spent by groups that favored Rosendale and attacked his GOP opponents in the June primary.

Among those backing Rosendale and opposing Tester are two political committees, Restoration PAC and Club for Growth, that are funded by Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein and another committee, the Senate Reform Fund, that’s primarily funded by Texas oil executive Tim Dunn.

Tester meanwhile has benefited from than $11 million in outside spending promoting his candidacy and attacking Rosendale. That includes spending by the political arms of the League of Conservation Voters, the American Hospital Association and the American Bankers Association, which endorsed Tester following his leading role in the effort to change the Dodd-Frank financial law.

Between the candidates themselves, Tester holds a commanding advantage in fundraising, with $17 million in contributions so far this election cycle and $1.8 million in the bank as of Sept. 30, according to campaign filings submitted this week to the Federal Election Commission.

Rosendale brought in about $3.7 million in contributions and had $622,000 in cash Sept. 30, the filings show.

At some point, said Jeremy Johnson, a political analyst at Carroll College in Helena, the money imbalance can get lost in the wash, amid the flood of advertisements now saturating voters’ mailboxes and television screens and the websites they visit.

Montana State University analyst David Parker said Tester’s cash lead is significant, because candidates typically get better rates when buying advertisements than outside groups.

“Tester, as a result, can have more penetration and control his own message,” Parker said. “The outside groups — the money goes less far — and is overwhelmingly negative. You have to tell your own story in the way you want to tell it. Tester can, Rosendale can’t.”

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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