U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat facing what's expected to be a tough re-election battle this fall, is organizing a group aimed at engaging and connecting with women voters around the state.

The group, called Women for Tester, will be be announced today at an event in Bozeman. 

Since the 2017 Women's March in Helena, which drew more than 10,000, politicians and political organizers statewide have said that women around the state are becoming more engaged in politics at all levels, from tracking policy legislation and contacting elected officials to running for office.

Though Tester said that “all issues are women’s issues,” some affect women more than others, including equal pay and access to health care.

A 2016 report prepared by the Joint Economic Committee Democratic staff found that women earn 79 percent of what men do. A woman working full time earns $10,800 less a year, on average, than a man, a disparity that can add up to nearly half a million dollars over a career.

Tester said that he’s frustrated women still don’t earn as much as men. “We’ve still got a long ways to go for equal pay for equal work. And in the 21st Century, are you kidding me? That’s unbelievable,” he said.

Tester also called out access to health care for women as “hugely important.”

“We’ve seen a lot of policies or rules taking away or enacted that have a real Draconian effect on rural American,” Tester said. “I think women understand that because they’re on the front lines.”

The five co-chairs of his committee are Emma Foster, a recent college graduate; Rep. Moffie Funk, a Democratic state legislator from Helena and former teacher; Carolyn Pease-Lopez, a former state lawmaker and enrolled member of the Apsaalooke; Rita Wells, a former teacher and labor and education advocate; and Maureen Wicks, a farmer and Liberty County commissioner.

Tester is seeking his third term in the U.S. Senate. The Republican primary to select his general election opponent is a crowded field that includes state auditor Matt Rosendale, Bozeman businessman Troy Downing and former Yellowstone County judge Russ Fagg. State Sen. Albert Olszewski and businessman Ron Murray have also announced they are seeking the seat.

The race is expected to be fiercely contested and expensive, with Republicans eager to take Tester's seat for their party and Democrats looking to keep critical positions and gain more in an effort to gain a majority in Congress.

Tester said Friday that the first targeted group announced by his campaign is focused on women because “women play a very, very important part of our society and the electorate.”

“Just about every issue that I take up, if not every issue, women are very much a part of,'' he said. "Whether it’s education issues or issues that revolve around public lands or environmental issues or right to privacy issues, the list goes on and on.”

Tester has a pro-choice voting record, something that in a politically divided state like Montana may not be popular with all voters, though Tester is clear on the issue.

“No. 1, nobody should get in between a woman and her doctor,” he said. “I don’t think we should be putting ourselves, and I’m talking about elected officials, in that relationship.”

Tester said that even though Montana is a state that leans Republican and has a Legislature that produces a handful of bills each session that would drastically reduce access to abortions, he doesn’t think his stance hurts him politically.

“Most people in this state don’t want anybody in their bedroom,” Tester said. “It’s about a right to privacy I think most Montanans connect with.”

Tester on Friday said he hopes the group can reach out to women voters and both educate them on his positions and work to increase turnout in what is expected to be a close and expensive race.

“I think Montana’s a retail politics state whether it’s the candidate doing it or surrogates for them,” Tester said. “These are the kind of folks that are going to be willing to go out and talk about why it’s important to keep Jon Tester in the U.S. Senate. I think that kind of retail politics is critical to elections, particularly in a rural state like Montana.”

Funk said while women have a long history of being engaged in Montana politics, she’s seen increased efforts over the last year.

“There’s more of a focus,” she said. "We're a very powerful voice. I believe the primary goal is to help educate people and make them feel empowered, because we are powerful."

Funk hopes the group can educate voters about the issues and emphasize how important it is to cast their ballots this fall.

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