In his third term, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester will head back to a much different environment in Washington, D.C.
President Donald Trump already is threatening to use the Republican-majority Senate as a blunt weapon against Democrats, who won a majority of the House seats in Tuesday's midterm election.
Come January, Democrats will have a minimum of 228 seats in the lower chamber, compared to a minimum of 199 for Republicans. Eight races remained undecided Sunday.
Republicans, meanwhile, will have at least 51 Senate slots after flipping seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota — places where candidates backed by Trump prevailed — with three races still to be decided.
In Montana, Tester bucked that trend by winning reelection over Republican challenger Matt Rosendale by his largest margin ever, for the first time capturing 50 percent of the vote. In his victory speech Wednesday morning, Tester said he'll take that mandate back to Washington and look for a bipartisan path through the muck in Congress.
“We need to get some things done in Washington. We need to work together. We need to put aside the political pettiness …,” Tester said.
Montana voters aren’t thrilled with how Congress has functioned, according to poll results from AP VoteCast, which questioned Montanans as they made their decisions in the midterm elections.
A clear majority, 76 percent of voters, did not approve of the job federal lawmakers were doing. But that same group of voters, by a significant margin, chose to send Tester back for a third term, deciding he was the best choice to improve the gridlock.
Rob Saldin, a political scientist at the University of Montana, said getting anything through a divided Congress will be difficult, but veterans issues could get some traction because it has appeal to both parties.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to think there’s going to be much in the way of legislation getting through the new Congress given the partisan split between the House and Senate,” Saldin said. “The one possible exception to that general trend might be veterans issues.”
Tester, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, campaigned on legislation he's brought to improve the VA. In his victory speech Wednesday, he said there's more work to be done.
For that to happen, he'll rely on a partnership with Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Georgia Republican who chairs the committee.
“Those two have worked together quite well, and that’s been a really good partnership in terms of getting legislation passed,” Saldin said. “It seems plausible that if they work as a team and are able to get some things through that committee and through the Senate floor, the House might be willing to do the same.”
After the race was called in his favor Wednesday, Tester said veterans issues were at the top on the list of what he wants to accomplish in his third term. He talked about a Vietnam veteran who spoke up at the first listening session he held after winning the Senate seat in 2006.
“Every day,” Tester said, pausing as he was hit with a wave of emotion after a long night with little sleep, "for the past 12 years, I’ve thought of that man. And we’ve done everything we can do, and we’ve got a lot more to do to live up to the promises we’ve made our veterans in this country. The fight is not over yet.”
Asked about how he would navigate a Senate where Republicans added to their majority, Tester didn’t shy away from lamenting Democratic losses.
“I lost some good friends this cycle. (U.S. Sen.) Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), (U.S. Sen.) Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) were two of my best friends. But you move on. And I’m sure there's some good people that are going to be coming in and I’m going to be able to meet over the next few months that we’ll be able to find common ground and we can work with,” he said.
Tester said he’ll rely on cross-party alliances, such as his relationships with Isakson and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to move legislation. He told supporters Wednesday he was able to get 20 bills he either wrote or co-sponsored signed by Trump because of partnerships like that, and it can continue in 2019.
Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, said that Tester’s dozen years in the Senate mean he’s been there long enough to be a leader in building political bridges in the upcoming session. Tester talked about filling that role during his victory speech Wednesday.
“Part of leading is working with people on issues of common good,” Tester said. “And I will tell you that as I walk around, there’s Democrats, there’s Republicans, Libertarians, we agree on a heck of a lot more than we disagree. So find the areas you agree on and work on them.
"This is exactly what Johnny (Isakson) and I did. We disagree on anything, we put it in the closet. And guess what. At the end of the day there was nothing left in the closet. And we can do that in Washington, D.C., and I hope we do.”
Though Trump spent more time and energy trying to defeat Tester than perhaps any other Senate candidate, holding four rallies in Montana, Johnson and Saldin said they expect all that campaign bluster to fizzle and that Trump’s vendetta won’t follow Tester into his third term.
“As far as working within Congress, I don’t think Trump’s relationship with Tester really matters all that much,” Johnson said. ”I don’t know if Trump will lash out again at Tester.”
Saldin said the reality is Tester won and will be in the Senate as long as Trump’s possible time in the White House could last.
“There’s not much more for Trump to do really, unless he wants to turn Tester into one on his list of terrible people with (U.S. Sen. Chuck) Schumer and (U.S. Rep. Nancy) Pelosi and (U.S. Rep.) Maxine Waters. But I just don’t think that’ll work very well. … I don’t see any upside for either of them to maintain a big grudge,” Saldin said.
Tester made it through this year’s midterm after opposing some of Trump’s biggest wins, such as the tax reform bill from 2017 and confirmation of two associate justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Tester's opposition to Trump’s agenda didn't conflict with Montanans' moods as much as Republicans trying to unseat Tester would have hoped.
Montanans cared much more about health care than taxes, according to information collected from the AP VoteCast poll of voters. They ranked the former at the top of issues they considered most important and the latter near the bottom.
The contentious nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to become an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court also wasn't a particularly strong driver for Montanans of either party, the poll showed.
The margin of error for the VoteCast poll is 2.4 percent. It was designed by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago to capture voter sentiment as Montanans reached their decisions about whom to vote for, or whether to cast a ballot at all. The survey of 2,665 voters in Montana was conducted Oct. 31 to Nov. 6, concluding as polls closed on Election Day.
Asked by an MSNBC reporter after the election about Tester’s victory, Trump responded: “Congratulations to Jon Tester,” before telling the reporter, “I’m sure you’re very happy about that.”
Tester ended up winning by his largest margin yet, something Salidn said won’t change the way senator acts day-to-day, but does take away any opening for Republican jabs questioning the legitimacy of his victory.
In his 2006 and 2012 wins, opponents had been able to say Tester didn't take half the vote or benefited from a Libertarian candidate siphoning support from his Republican opponent. This year neither of those things was true.
“This takes away some of the talking points critics have had about Tester," Saldin said. "… The Trump administration could not have done anything more in terms of the energy they devoted to this election, and yet he still comes out on top. This leaves Tester in certainly a much stronger political position than he’s ever been in."