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Jon Tester Ekes Out Third Term in Montana

Trump helped nationalize the race for GOP challenger

Montana may like the president. But they also like incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Montana may like the president. But they also like incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester prevailed in a tight re-election race, securing a third term in a state President Donald Trump carried by 21 points in 2016.

With 91 percent of precincts reporting, Tester led Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale 49 percent to 48 percent when The Associated Press called the race Wednesday. Libertarian candidate Rick Breckenridge, who had appeared to endorse Rosendale last week, finished with just under 3 percent.

First elected in 2006, Tester has never won more than 50 percent of the vote in his previous Senate races. But his personal brand once again helped him overcome partisan leanings in Big Sky Country.

Tester isn’t as conservative as some other red-state Democrats who were up for re-election this year. He voted against both of Trump’s Supreme Court picks and raised questions about the president’s nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, which provoked Trump’s ire. Democrats, though, cast that as an example of the senator’s independence.

Tester looked to be in better shape than many of his red-state Democratic colleagues for much of this race, but the contest began to tighten after the GOP deployed Trump to Montana for multiple rallies to help nationalize the campaign.

Republicans attacked Tester for having “gone Washington,” arguing that the former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wasn’t the senator he used to be.

As they did across the country, Democrats attacked Rosendale, who’s also the state’s insurance commissioner, on health care. But their best strategy was localizing the race to paint a contrast between Tester and Rosendale.

The senator leaned into his personal brand as a longtime Montana farmer and touted the number of bills he’d worked on that the president signed. Democrats went after Rosendale as an out-of-state transplant who didn’t understand Montana values. Rosendale moved into the state in the early 2000s from Maryland, where he was a land developer.

Rosendale’s origins, and especially his Baltimore accent, came up in the 2014 primary for the at-large House seat, in which he came in third. He was elected to the state House in 2010 and to the state Senate two years earlier. He was elected majority leader in 2014.

Tester used Rosendale’s past as a land developer and his legislative record to attack him on public lands, a frequent wedge issue in Montana, where Democrats have long accused Republicans of trying to limit access.

National Democrats also helped paint a contrast between Tester and Rosendale by mocking the Republican nominee’s claims to be a rancher. Talking Points Memo reported in May that Rosendale didn’t own any cattle or an active livestock brand. One ad from a national Democratic group showed an actor, impersonating Rosendale, wearing white boots, unpacking a saddle from the trunk of a Jaguar and struggling to carry hay.

Rosendale won the June GOP primary after several more high-profile statewide-elected Republicans passed on the race.

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