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Is this the year Montana Republicans oust Tester?

Sen. Daines won’t repeat the mistakes of previous GOP campaign chiefs

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is seen after the Senate luncheons in the Capitol on Nov. 29, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is seen after the Senate luncheons in the Capitol on Nov. 29, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

There’s an old song that goes “Everything old is new again.” That’s a pretty good description of the 2024 election battle for the U.S. Senate majority, where once again the fate of the same three Democratic senators who tipped the scales for their party in 2006 are likely to determine who controls the chamber in the 119th Congress.

In 2006, now-Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., took over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and implemented a new strategy that gave him the power to “play” in primaries in order to recruit who he saw as the most viable candidates to win general elections.

“Of all the things Harry Reid and I discussed the day I took the DSCC job, I believe that aggressive candidate selection — through both recruitment and intervention in primaries — contributed to winning the Senate majority more than any other (even more than our fundraising advantage, which was significant, to be sure),” he would write later in his book, “Positively American.”

Schumer had some serious weight to throw around in primary contests, not only the imprimatur of DSCC support for a chosen candidate but the millions of dollars that went with it. Control came down to six states where Democratic challengers won, getting Democrats to 51 seats in the Senate. Three of them – Jon Tester (Montana), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Bob Casey (Pennsylvania) have each won reelection twice in states that are either heavily Republican-leaning, or in the case of Pennsylvania, a volatile swing state. In 2020, Donald Trump carried Montana by 16 percentage points, Ohio by 8 points and lost Pennsylvania by 1 point.

This year, these three incumbents are the top targets for Republicans, with Tester likely No. 1 among them. There’s a reason. In 2006, while Brown and Casey easily won their first election bids to the Senate with double digit margins, Tester squeaked by with less than 1 percent. In each of his last two reelection bids, he won by less than 5 percent.

The question is whether this will finally be the year Republicans crack the code against Tester after three losing efforts. But as much as this year’s election is a repeat of previous attempts to corral the ideologically elusive Tester, the political environment in Montana isn’t nearly as friendly to Democrats as it was when Tester was elected 18 years ago.

The Winston Group recently did a historical analysis of Tester’s three previous races, 2006, 2012 and 2018 — along with the 2020 presidential race, looking at both election results and exit polls in Montana. What we found is troubling news for Tester.

Since 2006, Montana has become less Democratic and more conservative ideologically. Voters who self-defined as Democrats in exit polls have gone down from 32 percent in 2006 to 25 percent in 2018, and by the 2020 presidential election, had dropped to 22 percent. Republicans also dropped from 39 percent in 2006 to 29 percent in 2018. But the GOP bounced back to 37 percent in 2020. In that race, Trump beat Joe Biden by 16 points.

When it comes to ideology, however, there is no question Tester is facing an uphill battle. Self-identified conservatives as a share of the electorate have gone from 34 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2012. In 2018, conservatives outnumbered moderates 42 percent to 38 percent. In 2020, conservatives jumped to 47 percent, which helped Trump win the state.

Tester, on the other hand, has been able to win just enough of that crucial conservative vote to eke out three close victories, winning 15 percent of conservatives in 2006 and 2012. However, his share dropped to 12 percent in 2018.

Over his previous two successful reelection bids, Tester has also relied on his strength with independents to get him across the finish line. That’s important because one of the most startling political trends in Montana is the steady increase in independents as a percentage of the electorate, a shift not limited to Montana.

In Tester’s first reelection in 2012, independents overtook Republicans, 40 percent to 33 percent. Democrats rounded out at third with 27 percent. Six years later, independents had increased to 45 percent of the electorate. Republicans bounced back in 2020, to 37 percent, but independents still came out ahead, with 41 percent.

Tester’s strength with independents has steadily eroded since 2006, going from plus-24 points down to plus-10 in 2012 to plus-5 points in 2018. Trump won independents by 15 points in 2020. This is a negative trend for Tester that should buoy the hopes of Republicans this fall.

Another group that may play a larger role in Tester’s reelection bid is women voters whose support for Tester has steadily increased to plus-16 points against losing 2018 candidate Matt Rosendale. With Democrats pushing the abortion issue, fielding a Republican candidate with an effective strategy to address the concerns of women will be extremely important.

That’s where Tester’s Montana colleague and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Steve Daines, comes into play. Given the disappointments of 2022, the Montana Republican decided early on to focus on candidate quality. In 2022, Republican senatorial candidates in Arizona, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Georgia were endorsed by Trump in the primaries, but rejected by voters in the general. These Senate elections were eminently winnable for the GOP, but the primary contests focused on attributes other than candidate electability and cost Republicans the Senate majority.

Daines has taken a different course. With the retirement of Democrat Joe Manchin III, West Virginia’s Republican Gov. Jim Justice has the Senate seat all but wrapped up, so the NRSC needs to win only one of the party’s top three targets — Pennsylvania, Ohio or Montana — to win control of the Senate.

But something else has changed for Tester. Unlike past NRSC chairmen, Daines knows Tester well and the politics and people of Montana. He aggressively recruited the leading candidate in the state’s primary, Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL, rancher and businessman. Although he lost to Tester in 2018, GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale has now jumped into the race. Trump, notably, endorsed Sheehy just hours after the congressman tossed his hat into the ring.

For all Republican Senate candidates this year, what impact another Trump candidacy may have on down-the-ballot races remains an unknown factor going into the fall.

Candidate quality and viability matters and that’s a lesson Republicans, especially over the past few elections, have learned the hard way. It’s a mistake Daines won’t make.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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