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Tester run helps Democrats, but Montana still an uphill fight

Incumbent led in early poll against both GOP House members

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, left, said he will seek reelection. But his Republican colleague from the Big Sky State, Steve Daines, said he should have retired rather than have voters end his career.
Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, left, said he will seek reelection. But his Republican colleague from the Big Sky State, Steve Daines, said he should have retired rather than have voters end his career. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected 6:47 p.m. | Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s announcement Wednesday that he will run for a fourth term provided some relief to Democrats seeking to hold on to their narrow majority while facing a perilous map next year. 

Instead of the party having to scramble to find a candidate, Tester is a former state senator with high favorability ratings who led potential challengers in an early poll by a Republican consultant. But Montana has gotten more Republican since his last race, and Democrats’ high hopes there have been smashed there before. In 2020, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock spent almost $48 million trying to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Daines, and Daines beat Bullock by 10 percentage points.

Tester’s statement Wednesday tried to assure residents he was still connected to them despite his years in the nation’s capital.

“As a third-generation farmer who still farms the land my grandparents settled more than 100 years ago, I know that people in Washington don’t understand what a hard day’s work looks like or the challenges working families are facing in Montana,” Tester said. “I am running for reelection so I can keep fighting for Montanans and demand that Washington stand up for our veterans and lower costs.”

CQ Vote Studies have found that Tester’s “party unity” score, which measures how often he voted with or against a majority of Senate Democrats on votes that split the two parties, ranged from 84 percent in 2007 to 97 percent in 2021 and 2022. Despite that high number, he had the fifth-lowest Democratic unity score last year, however.

Democrats in states Trump won

Tester is the second Senate Democrat up this cycle representing a state former President Donald Trump won twice to say he’ll run again in 2024, following Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Another incumbent from a Trump-won state, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, hasn’t said if he’ll run again. 

“Democrats grew their majority in 2022 on the backs of their incumbents and their best chance of keeping it in 2024 depends on incumbents like Tester running and winning again,” CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales said. 

Democrats are defending several other competitive seats in states President Joe Biden narrowly won, including in Nevada, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In Michigan, Sen. Debbie Stabenow is retiring, leaving an open seat. Arizona’s Senate race could also prove complicated for Democrats after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema left the party last year and hasn’t said whether she’ll seek reelection as an Independent. 

Republicans are already targeting Tester’s seat. Daines, who is chairing the Senate Republican campaign arm this cycle, criticized Tester on Wednesday for supporting Biden’s “disastrous agenda.” 

Jon Tester just made the same mistake Steve Bullock did in 2020,” he said in a statement. “Both should have ended their political careers on their terms. Instead, they each will have their careers ended by Montana voters.”

House members weigh runs

Both of Montana’s Republican House members are weighing whether to run against Tester, and they may run against each other to get the nomination.

A poll from The Political Company of hypothetical matchups reported earlier this month by National Journal found that Tester led Rep. Ryan Zinke 46 percent to 40 percent, with 14 percent saying they didn’t know or were undecided. Tester led Rep. Matt Rosendale 45 percent to 40 percent with 15 percent who said they didn’t know or were undecided. Tester was also tied at 45 percent with Gov. Greg Gianforte, with 10 percent that said they didn’t know or were undecided. State Attorney General Austin Knudsen has also been named as a potential candidate.

The poll found Tester’s favorability rating was 56 percent, behind Gianforte’s 61 percent but slightly ahead of both Zinke’s and Rosendale’s. The poll, taken by a firm run by a former Gianforte campaign manager, surveyed 534 likely voters Jan. 30-Feb. 1 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. 

Daines has said the NRSC this year will weigh in during the primary process, and he’s already moved to coalesce support around Rep. Jim Banks in Indiana. It’s not clear what approach he might take to a primary in his home state. 

Heather Swift, Zinke’s chief of staff, said in an email that the congressman hasn’t yet made a decision whether to run for Senate.

“Whether he runs or not, Zinke is committed to working with Senator Daines to win the seat, flip the Senate, and give Montanans the leadership that reflects our values,” she said in an email. 

Zinke rejoined the House this year after serving as Trump’s first Interior secretary. He resigned from that role amid a slew of ethics investigations that could come up again in a Senate run. He defeated Democrat Monica Tranel last year by 3 points in the 1st District. 

Low single-digit wins

Rosendale, a two-term House member, lost a 2018 Senate race to Tester by 3.5 points. His Maryland roots became an issue in that race, though he bounced back to win what was then Montana’s sole House seat two years later.

First elected in 2006 by just under 1 point, Tester won reelection in 2012 by 3.7 points.

As of Dec. 31, Tester had $2.9 million in his campaign account, Rosendale had $1.2 million and Zinke had $110,000, after spending $6.6 million to win a seat last year.

Tester is chairman of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee and of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. He also serves on the Indian Affairs; Commerce Science and Transportation; and Banking Housing and Urban Affairs committees.

“While Republicans float a field of failed candidates who will have to fight amongst themselves in a primary, Jon is going to continue to focus on fighting for our veterans, lowering costs for Montana workers and families, and holding Washington accountable – and that’s exactly why voters will re-elect the Senate’s only working farmer in 2024,” Montana Democratic Party Chair Robyn Driscoll said in a statement.

This report was corrected to accurately portray Tester’s political career.