This is the first installment of a three-part series on the candidates running for the U.S. Senate.
HELENA –U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat running for a third consecutive term, says his priority is working together with both sides of the partisan aisle to get things done for Montana.
But this election year, Tester finds himself under fire from Republicans, from the president on down, for being a “liberal Democrat” bent on blocking Trump’s agenda for the nation.
Twice already this year, President Trump has flown to Montana to headline campaign rallies where he urges Montanans to turn out the state’s senior senator.
“I see Jon Tester saying such nice things about me; I say, yeah, but he never votes for me,” Trump said at a July rally in Great Falls. “He never votes.”
Tester, replying to the criticism, notes that Trump has signed 20 bills that Tester has co-sponsored or sponsored the past two years – and says he’ll work with the president when his agenda is right for Montana.
“I’ve said I’ll work with the president when I can and I’ll hold him accountable when I must, and I’ve done exactly that,” Tester told MTN News in an interview this summer.
Tester, 62, an organic farmer from Big Sandy in north-central Montana, has had a bull’s eye on his back for two years, as a Democrat up for re-election in 2018 in a state Trump won easily in 2016.
His main opponent is Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who’s aligned himself closely with President Trump. Libertarian Rick Breckenridge also is in the race.
Tester has always pitched himself as a moderate Democrat, who can work with Republicans when necessary on issues important to the state.
“I’ve always said, you take Montana back to Washington, D.C., — this state was built by people working together and I think you can say that for the country, generations ago,” he says. “You have to develop personal relationships and that’s a big part of it.”
But he’s also opposed Trump and majority Republicans on some key items, such as the 2017 GOP tax-cut bill, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), and Trump’s two nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.
He says the tax-cut bill over-benefited the wealthy and needlessly balloons the federal debt, and that Trump’s Supreme Court nominees are bad news for personal privacy rights and other rights that Montanans hold dear.
Tester also says the ACA should be improved, rather than thrown out, which he sees as a return to a flawed system that left millions of Americans without health coverage and unable to afford it.
“The whole idea behind the bill was to create more competition in the marketplace,” he says. “That didn’t happen in Montana. … We’ve got to figure out ways to expand the pools so that more companies will come in. …
“Just to say we’re going to repeal it, and add more instability to the system is not the direction to go, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last five years.”
Tester also says he’s content to run on his record of accomplishment, pointing first to his long list of bills to improve the Veterans Administration health-care system.
In the past 18 months alone, Tester has played a significant role in several bills on veterans’ health care, including the VA Mission Act. It overhauls the often-criticized “choice program” that was supposed to shorten waits for care by letting veterans go to private health-care providers.
Other successful efforts supported by Tester during the Trump presidency include grants to rural fire departments, the bill that loosened post-recession regulations imposed on rural banks and requiring U.S. Senate candidates to file campaign finance reports electronically, to make them more quickly accessible to the public.
Tester says he has an eye on the future and what the government can do to help citizens succeed.
“That’s exactly what these races are about: Who’s going to offer our kids the best shot at success,” he says. “Not certain kids, not specific kids, but all kids. That’s what made this country great.”
-Mike Dennison reporting