BILLINGS – Montana Senate candidate Matt Rosendale may not be a household name, but he’s surrounded on the campaign trail by President Donald Trump and other big-name Republicans like Vice President Mike Pence, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul.
His opponent, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester? He’s got “The Dude.”
Arguably the biggest name to appear on Tester’s behalf this election season has been actor and part-time Montana resident Jeff Bridges, who played The Dude in the cult classic film “The Big Lebowski.”
That’s no slight by key Democrats, who steered clear of the race despite control of the closely divided Senate potentially at stake. Rather, it is Tester’s calculated effort to distance himself from mainstream party figures and stoke his image as a centrist still rooted in the small agricultural community of Big Sandy where he farms.
Republicans have been throwing all they have at flipping the seat, helping drive spending to record levels. Trump will campaign for Rosendale in Montana for a fourth time Saturday – the most visits to the state by any sitting president. He’s aiming to personally oversee the two-term incumbent’s defeat in retribution for derailing his nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary.
“The headwinds are greater for Tester than they have been in the past,” said former Rep. Pat Williams, a Montana Democrat who served from 1979 to 1997. “Tester’s time in Washington is being used by (Trump supporters) as a political weakness, when always before, Montanans have understood that time in Washington is a political strength.”
Trump is certain to lash out at Tester during the weekend rally in the college town of Bozeman. Two weeks ago in another Montana visit, which The Spokesman-Review attended, the president said Tester was part of a “Democratic mob” that “viciously” went after former White House doctor Ronny Jackson, who withdrew from consideration for the VA post in April after the senator released allegations of drunken behavior, overprescribing prescription drugs and fostering a hostile work environment.
Facing all the GOP’s firepower, Tester has stuck with the populist approach that worked for him in his 2006 and 2012 elections. He won both narrowly in a state that’s increasingly tilting Republican. Closing in on the end of another tight race, the question is whether the strategy will withstand Trump’s effort to vanquish Tester.
After Bridges plugged Tester at a get-out-the-vote rally last month in Bozeman, Tester posted a video of the actor describing the Democrat as a “seven-fingered dirt farmer,” a reference to Tester’s life as a grain farmer and the three fingers he lost as a child in a meat grinder.
Tester also got a boost from a benefit concert by Pearl Jam, whose bassist is a childhood friend of the lawmaker’s, and Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Senate races in Arizona and West Virginia.
Arizona Republican Rep. Martha McSally has campaigned alongside a list of GOP luminaries – Trump, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Gov. Doug Ducey. Her Democratic opponent, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, has fashioned herself as a centrist who doesn’t follow party leaders, leaving her running basically alone.
In West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin has generally shied away from big-name Democrats, instead using sports personalities in ads to defend his seat in a state that Trump won by 43 percentage points. His Republican challenger, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, has appeared with Trump and Pence multiple times.
Republicans nevertheless have tried to associate the three senators with Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Attack ads by conservative political groups that have pumped tens of millions of dollars into the races have reinforced that message.
Instead of engaging directly over the jabs, Tester and his supporters have pushed a counter-narrative that stresses his willingness to collaborate with the president and Republicans, particularly on veterans’ health issues. He says he won’t give ground on privacy protections, health care and abortion rights.
“For me, it’s about who can represent Montana, who understands the rural nature of this state,” Tester said in an interview. He added that Rosendale was “just going to go there and rubber-stamp” Trump’s proposals.
Rosendale, a former state lawmaker elected in 2016 as Montana’s state auditor and insurance commissioner, has parroted Trump’s lines of attack. He rails against Tester’s opposition to Republican-sponsored tax cuts and Supreme Court picks and his treatment of Jackson.
“These are things that the president is putting forward that I certainly support and then again that Jon has opposed every step of the way,” Rosendale said. “We are turning back the clock of time and going to have a Supreme Court that simply upholds the Constitution and does not try to pervert it for some new progressive agenda.”
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