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U.S. Sen. Jon Tester

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester at the Billings Public Library on Monday, October 17, 2016.

President Donald Trump, a Republican, has made it clear there’s no love lost between him and Jon Tester, Montana’s senior U.S. senator and a Democrat.

The president has tweeted criticisms of Tester, taunted him in a phone call on Fox News and stiffed Tester by not inviting him to the signing of a bill co-written by the senator to revamp veterans’ health care. All that’s been since the end of May.

Now Trump is coming to Tester’s backyard for a rally in Great Falls on Thursday, which will undoubtedly include myriad attacks on the senator.

Trump is throwing his support behind state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who is seeking to deny Tester a third term in the Senate in this fall's election.

Tester isn’t intimidated by Trump's visit. Even as the president goes after him, the senator is touting the fact that 16 of his bills have been signed by Trump, many of which deal with veterans issues.

That's part of an attempt, said Jeremy Johnson,  Carroll College associate professor of political science, to capture Montana voters who aren't strictly tied to any political party. That's the demographic responsible for pushing Tester to victory in the past. 

“Tester is highlighting where he’s been able to work with Trump, plus he’s built his own brand in Montana independent of national trends," Johnson said.

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.

Johnson thinks Tester's campaign so far, even with Trump coming after him, is in strong shape.

“So far national prognosticators think that Tester has navigated those challenges fairly well,” Johnson said. “He’s not seen as among the most vulnerable Democrats in the country right now.

"All that being said, Trump won the state by 20 points, and for any Democrat in Montana ... it’s a challenge to get elected. Tester won both of those (previous Senate) races narrowly.”

Veterans bills

The bulk of Tester's bills signed into law by Trump aim at improving veterans' ability to access health care. Tester's gotten them passed, often by wide margins, in part because of his strong relationship with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Tester is the committee's ranking Democrat.

Building that relationship has not only benefited veterans. Isakson stood by Tester when he came under attack from Trump for making public the accusations of bad behavior against Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the president’s nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Isakson was first in line to defend Tester.

“I trust him and he trusts me,” Tester said. “If somebody on my side of the aisle starts bad-mouthing Johnny, I just say, ‘Hey man, you got it wrong, there’s no benefit in what you’re doing.’ I’ve always been able to do that.

"What does that mean? That means when times get tough, you got somebody you can depend upon and it happens to be a Republican.”

Getting bills signed by the president is one thing, voting with him is another. 

There are high-profile policies and nominees Tester and Trump haven't agreed on. The appointment of Associate Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the GOP's tax bill are two Rosendale likes to talk about.

Rosendale often calls Tester an "obstructionist" to Trump's agenda.

"He can’t claim to be working with Trump when his record shows the exact opposite from supporting the government shutdown to opposing the border wall to protecting sanctuary cities to voting against Neil Gorsuch and most of the president's nominees," said Shane Scanlon with Rosendale’s campaign. "His votes don’t in any way add up to supporting the Trump agenda.”

A review of Senate votes since Trump took office a year and a half ago shows Tester voted with the president's agenda about 37 percent of the time; that jumps to 62 percent for cabinet nominees.

Tester's 15 yes votes on Trump's 22 cabinet nominees ranks him seventh among the 47 Senate Democrats and two Independents who typically vote with them. He's voted against 11 nominees; a handful have been replaced since Trump took office.

Tester's overall voting record puts him in the middle of the road for Senate Democrats. He aligns with fellow red-state Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota about 85 percent of the time.

But he's also voted, as his opponents are fond of pointing out, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York about as often as he does with Heitkamp.

Asked to describe himself, Tester said he’s “a Montanan who’s a Democrat.”

That means he's helped pass bills that are, at times, opposed by other Demcorats in the Senate, he said.

One of the high-profile recent departures Tester made from his party was on a banking bill to reverse some regulations enacted after the financial collapse in 2008.

Tester says he still believes voting for the Dodd-Frank Act then was right, but he heard from Montanans there were parts that needed fixing.

“With the banking bill, I saw an opportunity. I’ve talked to community banks that said, ‘If you do this, it won’t hurt the safety and soundness of the system and I’ll be able to get into the housing market,'” Tester said.

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Tester said he takes his cues from listening to people on the ground in Montana. Any friction within his party comes out of a rural-urban divide.

“When it comes to the other senators, whether Republican or Democrat, if they don’t understand rural America, they don’t see the world the same way I do,” Tester said.

When the legislation to relax Dodd-Frank restrictions on the banking industry came up, Tester said, "some people were saying, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, ‘Why is he doing this?’ It’s because access to capital is so critically important in rural America. You might not understand that if all you know is a populated area.”

While Rosendale dings Tester for supporting Dodd-Frank initially, the Republican challenger has spent far more time criticizing the senator's vote against Gorsuch, Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

With another vacancy on the court after Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy announced last week he will will retire in July, Trump has another line of attack on red-state Democrats.

At a rally in Fargo, North Dakota, last week, Trump told voters they should oppose Heitkamp because she'd shoot down his next nominee for the court, even though she voted for Gorsuch.

Tester said the assumption someone would sign off on a nominee based simply on being a member of the same party as the president doesn’t sit well with him.

“Saying, ‘Well I’m just going to support this guy’s pick and that guy’s policy regardless of what that policy is,' I think that’s a huge mistake,” Tester said.

Johnson, the political scientist, said it's not clear if attack refrains from Trump during Thursday's rally will still be ringing in voters' ears come the fall.

“It can be overemphasized, the news of the day and how that matters to how voters vote in November,” Johnson said. “A visit from the president months before the election, it’s not determinative."

There’s also a possibility that Trump’s visit could galvanize Democratic energy in Montana, something Johnson thinks is a possible outcome.

“Democrats got more votes than they typically do in a primary,” Johnson said of the May vote in Montana. “There’s possibly more enthusiasm on the Democratic side.”

Still, there were nearly 41,500 more votes in the Republican Senate primary than in the highest profile Democratic primary contest, the race to see which Democrat would take on U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, the Republican incumbent.

What could be more important is what Trump does months from now.

“It depends on if Trump starts tweeting much closer to the election about Tester again,” Johnson said. “It could matter more if tweets start coming in October or early November.”

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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