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Supporters of President Donald Trump

Supporters of President Donald Trump arrived early to wait in line for a spot at the July 5 rally at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls.

It’s not often the leader of the free world comes to Montana. Two trips within two months is unheard of. 

But President Donald Trump is returning to the state Thursday as part of an effort to target Democrats in places where the Republican president is popular.

Trump came to Great Falls in July to support Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale in his bid to unseat two-term incumbent Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat and farmer from Big Sandy.

Tester is one of 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election this year in states Trump won in 2016. The president and national conservative groups are already spending significant time and resources trying to flip those seats.

Pundits agree the rally set for Thursday in Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark in Billings is mostly about rallying the party base. The ultimate test of how that works will be Election Day, Nov. 6.

Rosendale, who has worked to tie himself to Trump as tightly as possible, is enthusiastically welcoming the president. Rosendale's last two campaign ads are almost entirely clips from Trump's Great Falls rally in which Rosendale barely speaks a word.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to have President Trump back out to Montana in support of our campaign,” Rosendale said in a statement last week. “The president needs conservative reinforcements to help him secure the border, confirm constitutional justices and protect our Montana way of life."

Tester said the first time Trump came he wasn't worried about the rally's possible effect on his re-election bid. The same is true for Round 2. The day of the last event, hundreds lined the route through Great Falls to see the president's motorcade. The same day, Tester took out a full-page ad in papers around the state welcoming Trump and thanking him for signing several bills Tester sponsored or co-sponsored.

Tester spokesman Chris Meagher said last week the second Trump visit won't change anything.

“This race is about Jon Tester and Matt Rosendale and the more Montanans learn about the work Jon’s been able to accomplish working with the president … the more they understand how Jon is working for them in the Senate and how Matt Rosendale would not be looking out for their best interests," Meagher said. "That’s what this race is about."

At the July 5 campaign-style rally in Great Falls, 6,600 enthusiastic fans filled Four Seasons Arena to see the president tout Rosendale as someone he says will support his agenda. Trump also tried to classify Tester’s record as obstructionist and relived his own presidential campaign victory, all while fitting in attacks on the media, the #MeToo movement and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in his 90-minute speech.

The president is expected to do much of the same Thursday.

“It’s all about exciting the base,” said Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena. “For the Republican base, Trump is a major motivating figure. A candidate like Rosendale has attached himself very closely to Trump, so this is clearly to generate excitement among base voters.”

Johnson said creating energy is an important part of the Republican playbook because Democrats are expected to do well nationally, riding a so-called "blue wave" cresting in response to Trump's election and tenure in office.

"There’s a lot of Democratic enthusiasm and Democratic turnout will be higher than normal,” Johnson said. “That worries Republican strategists.”

Tapping independent voters and those who don’t strongly align with any party has been a part of Tester’s two past wins. Johnson said he doesn’t think Trump’s rallies in Montana will touch those people.

“Trump alienates liberals and does not reach out to more independent voters either,” Johnson said. “It’s an intense appeal, but it’s a relatively narrow appeal.”

Rob Saldin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Montana, said he thinks Trump has it out for Tester. 

As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Tester publicly released allegations that Trump's nominee to head the VA drank on the job and improperly dispensed prescriptions, leading Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson to withdraw from consideration and sparking a Pentagon investigation.

“It seems that Tester’s involvement with Trump's VA secretary nominee was the spark for Trump,” Saldin said. “It does seem to me Trump really kind of has it out for Tester here with a second visit in a short amount of time. It’s a big deal to get a presidential visit in Montana and here we are with two of them in just the span of a couple months.”

Johnson said another consideration is the visit might not be about Rosendale — or Tester — as much as it is about Trump.

“When Trump is having trouble in the national news, he goes out to the countryside and it energizes Trump, to go to rallies where he’s well-received,” Johnson said. “These rallies in part are about Trump himself. He goes to rallies when he’s having problems. In general at these rallies he talks mostly about himself.”

Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort was recently found guilty of bank fraud and tax evasion. The same day Michael Cohen, a lawyer and the president's ex-fixer, admitted to bank fraud, tax evasion and campaign finance violations and told the judge under oath he had paid off women at the president's behest to prevent them from talking about affairs with Trump.

Saldin said while trouble is swirling around the president, it may not have any effect on him or make Rosendale's affinity for the president an issue.

“I think Trump’s base clearly is locked in and I also think for those of us who follow this really closely, we often overestimate the degree to which people are aware and care about these things,” Saldin said.

Saldin pointed to Trump’s approval ratings, which haven’t changed much since he assumed office, hovering generally between 40 to 45 percent.

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“Views on Trump are really, really locked in and it would take a lot to sway that dramatically one way or the other. … None of these extraneous things really seem to affect his connection with his voters all that much,” Saldin said.

Debra Lamm, chair of the Montana GOP, said the first Trump rally was “stunning."

“It shocked all of us and it shocked the president,” Lamm said of the turnout. Trump filled the Four Seasons Arena and several thousand were left outside.

Lamm expects higher attendance at the Billings rally, saying it’s a bigger venue and many in Montana are supportive of Trump.

“People are excited about what the president’s policies have done for them personally,” Lamm said, citing the tax bill passed at the end of last year.

At the rally, Trump is expected to talk about trade negotiations with Mexico. Montana grain growers recently told Rosendale they've been harmed by tariffs Trump put into place earlier this year, but were willing to wait it out if a better deal was reached soon. Lamm said she is confident things will improve for farmers.

“I trust the president. I think he’s an incredible negotiator," Lamm said. "We don’t know everything that’s been discussed. There’s a lot going on. I think that farmers trust that the president is going to get a deal that will benefit everyone in the long run.”

Lamm said she expects a boost in voter energy up and down the ballot from Trump's visit.

Montana Democrats say they're also working on turnout by focusing on their ground game.

“We’re out there talking to voters every day and making sure that they know how important it is just to vote and making sure they know Matt Rosendale’s record … and making sure they know Jon has been fighting for them in the Senate on issues that matter to them,” Meagher said.

The Montana Democratic Party, with its coordinated campaign effort, started opening field offices in May and now have 13 statewide, including on the seven reservations. Since the start of the year, the party has tallied 175,000 door knocks, 470,000 phone calls and 2,500 volunteers working a shift to contact voters. 

"We are seeing unprecedented grassroots energy and interest in this year’s election because Montanans know how hard Jon fights for Montana every day," said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. "And the more Montanans learn about Matt Rosendale’s record ... the more they are motivated to go talk to their neighbors about the stakes of this election.”

The White House has said Trump plans to spend at least 40 of the days before the Nov. 6 midterm on the road campaigning. With 10 Senate races where Democrats are seeking re-election in states where Trump won and a significant amount of travel planned, Trump could come to Montana one more time before the election.

“It’s not altogether clear to me this is the last (visit),” Saldin said. “Who’s to say he won't be back for a third?”

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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