GREAT FALLS — As Montana Democrats gathered at a convention center near the river here to set their platform, the party’s top candidates in this fall's election rallied the crowd to go out and talk to voters around the state about their campaigns.
Montana’s senior U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is running for re-election against state Auditor Matt Rosendale in what’s expected to be one of the most intensely watched, expensive and close Senate races this year.
Republicans have put Tester in their sights as a Democrat running to keep his seat in a state Republican President Donald Trump won in 2016. In addition to massive amounts of money that have already poured into Montana, Trump himself made a visit here last week and Vice President Mike Pence is coming to Billings at the end of July to campaign on behalf of Rosendale. Donald Trump Jr. also came out in June.
Kathleen Williams, a former Democratic state lawmaker, is trying to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte in a race that’s gotten less attention, but is still expected to flood Montanan’s mailboxes and social media feeds with advertising.
In a true-to-brand speech that mixed stories from his farm with his matter-of-fact style, Tester told the crowd of about 170 how important shoe leather will be in both his and Williams’ bids to counter the influx of advertising against them.
Earlier this week the Senate Reform Fund, a group that has not federally reported any spending or contributions, started running an ad against Tester. Tester’s campaign says the ad falsely attributed quotes to the senator, as well as gave him all 10 fingers. Tester lost three of his fingers in a meat grinder accident as a child.
"What we’re going to see is going to be the same old game plan from the other side," Tester said. "We’re going to see dark money flowing into this state like we’ve never seen before. … Once again they gave me 10 fingers, which really pisses me off because I don’t have 10 fingers. But the truth is, (the ad) is full of lies.”
Tester said attack ads are coming because of the contrast between him and Rosendale, and that his background makes him difficult to beat.
“They know Montana knows a third-generation farmer from an East Coast millionaire from Maryland, so they got to put up a bunch of crap, whether it’s on the TV or the internet, trying to confuse folks,” Tester said.
Rosendale moved to Montana in 2002 from Maryland, something the Montana Democratic Party plays up as often as possible. Tester also took a dig at Rosendale’s property in Glendive, saying he bought it to claim to be a rancher but “he’s the only rancher I know that has no cows.”
At the end of May, Talking Points Memo ran a story saying Rosendale rents out his land and let his registered livestock brand, which was never used, expire in 2011.
Tester, who never referenced Rosendale by name in his speech, also told the crowd he would work to preserve and expand access to public lands, improve access to and the cost of health care, and fight for education funding.
Tester also touched on veterans affairs during his speech, citing the eight bills he’s passed during this session of Congress related to the Department of Veterans Affairs. At Trump’s rally July 5 in Great Falls, the president praised two of Tester’s bills, though he didn’t mention the senator’s connection to the legislation. Trump went after Tester in April after Tester made public allegations of misconduct against the president's nominee to run the VA, with Trump saying Tester would have "a big price to pay."
On Friday, Tester also ripped Rosendale for votes he took as a state lawmaker against, in one case, a bill that included funding for a veterans home in Butte.
Tester then touted his agriculture credentials, saying he got off an airplane at 1:40 a.m. the night before the speech, got home to his Big Sandy farm at 3 a.m. and went to work Friday morning.
“I got up and loaded my semi full of wheat … and I took a load of wheat to market; that’s what I did this morning. When these guys get up and start talking about 'Jon Tester doesn’t know Montana,' they need to look in the mirror. … The fact of the matter is I am Montana, I work Montana, I know Montana. I come from a small town in Montana. I’ve seen how rural America has gotten hammered with bad policies from Washington, D.C.”
A spokesman for Rosedale after the speech criticized Tester’s time in the Senate, pointing to the senator’s vote against associate Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and painting Tester as soft on immigration for voting against a bill that proposed to punish cities that adopted so-called “sanctuary” policies.
“While Jon Tester has lost his way, Matt Rosendale will always fight for Montana and he'll stand with President Trump to get tough and crack down on illegal immigration, defend our right to keep and bear arms, and support constitutional justices who will follow the law and defend our Montana way of life,” said Shane Scanlon.
At the end of his speech, Tester introduced Williams, saying: “She’s a fighter. It doesn’t matter what the opposition, it doesn’t matter what the obstacle is, she’s going to rip their face off and she’s going to get the job done.”
Williams embraced Tester’s description of her campaign.
“I am a fighter, but you know what? You can do it with a smile and it’s much more fun that way," Williams said.
Williams pointed to her past — both personal and in the Montana state Legislature — when telling the group why she would be able to defeat Gianforte in the fall.
She spoke about the death of her mother from Alzheimer’s disease, saying it cemented for her how critical access to health care is. She also discussed the death of her husband after he collapsed skiing, saying her friends' response showed her how Montanans can come together to help each other.
Williams presented the convention with what she said were stark contrasts between herself and Gianforte, saying the congressman has failed to fix health care problems while in the House.
“So many Montanans can’t afford their health care,” Williams said.
While Gianforte has campaigned in the past on his ability to create jobs through his high-tech startup in Bozeman that he later sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion, Williams said her work on a bill in the state Legislature that allowed people to sell food from their own kitchen was widely successful in adding employment opportunities.
“That’s more than just one high-tech company in Bozeman. It helped everybody, urban and rural. (Those producers) used agricultural products as inputs, adding value, helping our rural communities,” Williams said. “It also cut the red tape for the food truck business and farmers market. … In Montana we keep our promises,” Williams said. “I’ve kept mine. Just look at my legislative record or ask around.”
During the primary, Williams took the strongest stance on firearms after a school shooting that killed 17 in Parkland, Florida, thrust the issue into the forefront. She came out in support of a limit on some assault-style weapons, something Williams said Gianforte will use against her.
“I support the Second Amendment but I had the courage to start a conversation about how to keep our kids safe in school,” Williams said. “They deserve to be safe and we need to stop the massacres. Montana deserves leaders who will discuss these difficult issues."
Williams also said Gianforte's campaign would try to tie her to U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California who is minority leader in the house. Gianforte's campaign manager did that in a comment after the speech.
"Kathleen Williams wants to mislead voters with scare tactics from the Obama-Pelosi playbook, but Montanans know better," said Kevin Gardner. "They know Greg has been a strong, conservative voice for them in Washington, working to roll back the failed, harmful policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi that Kathleen Williams would bring back. Greg will continue working with President Trump to deliver on his promises to Montana — securing the border, making our communities safer, protecting our right to defend ourselves, letting hardworking Montanans keep more of what they earn, creating jobs, rebuilding our military, and taking care of our veterans."