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Democratic Sen. Jon Tester hopes to secure another win in deep-red Montana

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaks during a town hall hosted by the Democratic lawmaker at Montana Technological University, Nov. 10, 2023, in Butte, Mont.
Matthew Brown
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaks during a town hall hosted by the Democratic lawmaker at Montana Technological University, Nov. 10, 2023, in Butte, Mont.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a third-generation farmer from Montana, is one of Republicans' top political targets this year as they try to win back control of the Senate.

Tester is the last Democrat holding statewide office as Republicans have dominated recent elections in Montana. He's campaigning for a fourth term in one of just four U.S. Senate races identified as toss-ups by The Cook Political Report.

In a political career that's spanned more than two decades, first in the state legislature then in the U.S. Senate, Tester has carved out an identity as a moderate — focusing on agriculture, education and veterans' issues.

At a fundraiser last month in Helena, Mont., Tester described what it's like being a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state.

"The progress we make as Democrats in this state are hard fought," Tester said. "We have to earn them inch by inch."

With the Senate in the balance, Tester walks a tightrope

The stakes, both in Montana and nationally, have outside groups pouring money into the race. More than $32 million has been spent so far in ads this cycle on the race. According to an NPR analysis of data from the tracking firm Ad Impact, just over $12 million of that is coming from GOP groups and more than $19 million is from Democratic spending. Tester's campaign is the biggest ad spender so far with more than $10 million spent.


Republican ads in this year's race have described the senator as "two-face Tester," claiming he's beholden to special interests instead of Montana voters.

Tester is a top recipient of lobbyist cash among members of Congress, according to Open Secrets, which tracks campaign-finance spending. He's raised about $33 million so far in his reelection campaign, according to recent FEC filings. That's four times the amount his top GOP opponent, Tim Sheehy, has raised and more than Tester raised in total for his 2018 campaign.

In an interview with NPR in February, Tester rejected criticism that money influences his politics.

"This is part of the Republican strategy that they've always had to try to make me into something I'm not so they can run against that person, because they can't beat the dirt farmer from Big Sandy, Montana, who looks out for rural America," Tester said.

That identity has been central to his staying power as Montana's senior senator.

But when it comes to actual votes — his staying power is won by slim margins. In all three of his bids for Senate, Tester has never won more than 51% of the vote.

He tries to appeal to voters by highlighting what he sees as a record of working across the aisle.

An example he often cites is his work as chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to gain bipartisan support of thePACT Act. Signed into law in 2022, with bipartisan support, it expanded health benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins while on active duty.

"Montanans understand that you need to work together. They understand the division is bad," Tester said when discussing his approach to reaching across the aisle. "And they appreciate when they have someone who's willing to roll up their sleeves and get things done."

A Democrat who isn't always in step with his own party

That approach also means Big Sky voters at times hear talking points from their lone Democrat in Congress they may be more familiar hearing from GOP candidates.

Tester was the only Democrat to co-sponsor legislation to prevent China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from buying agricultural land in the U.S. The legislation was introduced last year by GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota.

Just last week, Tester posted a video to social mediawhere he pressed Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a Senate hearing, demanding he "step up" to fix the southern border.

He also released an ad this month critical of President Biden's border policies. The ad touts Tester working with Republicans to "shut down the border, target fentanyl traffickers and add hundreds of new border patrol agents."

His rivals, however, are quick to point out times Tester has aligned with Democrats and Biden.

Sheehy said in a statement that Tester's vote with Democrats on Wednesday to dismiss Mayorkas' impeachment trial shows that he "does more for illegal immigrants in Washington than he does for legal taxpaying American citizens."

Earlier this year, the Republican-led House voted to impeach Mayorkas saying he failed to enforce immigration policies. But on Wednesday the U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, rejected the articles of impeachment. Many argued that there was no credible evidence that justified launching an impeachment trial.

Tester released his own statement on the vote, saying the state of the southern border is "unacceptable," but that the impeachment is "a distraction that fails to make our country safer."

Tim Sheehy, founder and chief executive officer of Bridger Aerospace and a Republican Senate candidate for Montana, at the Bridger hangar in Bozeman, Mont., on Jan. 18, 2024.
/ Louise Johns/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Louise Johns/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tim Sheehy, founder and chief executive officer of Bridger Aerospace and a Republican Senate candidate for Montana, at the Bridger hangar in Bozeman, Mont., on Jan. 18, 2024.

Tester's top GOP rival bets on Trump's appeal in Montana

Sheehy was handpicked to run by Montana's junior U.S. senator, Steve Daines, who is leading Republican efforts to win a Senate majority. Sheehy is considered the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination for Senate in the state's primary in June.

Sheehy, a veteran and founder of an aerial firefighting company, is fully embracing former President Donald Trump's brand of conservatism and using that as the reason why voters should elect him instead of Tester.

"Trump will win the White House, but he'll be severely limited on what he can do if he doesn't have a Senate to back him up," Sheehy said earlier this year.

Sheehy also boasts about his endorsement from Trump.

Having last run for reelection in 2018, Tester's never shared a ticket with Trump, who won Montana by 16 points in 2020.

An Emerson College poll completed in early March found that about 14% of Montana voters who support Trump plan to split their ticket in November and also vote for Tester. The poll also found 71% support Sheehy.

Montana State University political scientist Jessi Bennion thinks Tester is facing the fight of his professional life.

"He's absolutely trying to distance himself from Washington, D.C., Democrats," Bennion said. "That's smart, he absolutely has to do that to win here."

Copyright 2024 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.