When you’re a Democratic senator up for reelection in a state President Donald Trump won by 20 points, and the president calls on you to resign, you don’t take the bait. If you’re Montana Sen. Jon Tester, at least, you give him props.
“Donald Trump was straight up. I mean he told me what he thought of me, and that’s cool. I might not like it, but at least he did it to my face,” Tester told VICE News in an interview. “That’s what Montanans like. They like people to be square with them.”
In reality, Trump did it on Twitter — a tweet issued after Tester, the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, helped sink the president’s nominee for VA Secretary by publicizing anonymous complaints about him.
Tester wouldn’t answer when asked if he thought Trump’s call for his resignation was appropriate — but also said he didn’t regret his role in the VA Secretary nomination fight.
“Would I rather he not [send the tweet]? Yeah. But he’s president United States. He can do what he thinks is right. I did what I thought was right, and I’d do it again,” he said.
But that tweet added further pressure to what’s already expected to be a tough reelection fight for the two-term senator. Tester’s opposed the president on key legislative priorities and nominees more than nearly any other vulnerable Democrat up for reelection this year, but he believes Montana voters will give him the benefit of the doubt on his record.
“We’ll get backlash no matter what we do,” Tester acknowledged, but he added: “I wasn’t sent here to be a political operative. I was said here to be a U.S. senator that represents Montana and Montana’s values. And I think with every one of those votes I can justify every one I’m from a Montana perspective.”
It’s a line any politician might give to defend their tough votes, but the difference with Tester is voters seem to believe it. A May Morning Consult pollfound Tester was the only red-state Democrat up for reelection with an approval rating over 50 percent — and he’s rated by a handful of nonpartisan election observers as one of the least vulnerable red-state Democrats this fall.
The political platitudes may be more believable from Tester because, more than many senators, voters say he does seem to embody the state he represents. Tester’s the only working farmer in the Senate. He still heads home on weekends to plant and plow his organic farm with his wife just outside of Big Sandy, Montana. And he butchers meat on the farm that he takes back to Washington sometimes in a large suitcase.
Tester plays up his Montana roots in his campaign while attacking his GOP opponent, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, as “Maryland Matt” for moving to the state 16 years ago.
But the senator still has to walk a careful line on Trump, criticizing him only on issues that are a major focus in Montana, like trade and the VA, while defending him on others. Tester called the discussion about impeaching the president among some Democrats “silly talk” and “way premature,” because the Special Counsel investigation is still ongoing.
“I don’t think what he did is going to be an impeachable offense, if he did anything,” he said.
But with the president expected to visit the state to campaign for Tester’s opponent, the senator knows he’s got a long road ahead to Election Day this fall.
“You’re always running from behind,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to lose.”
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