Democratic Sen. Jon Tester Bucks Joe Biden Amid Tough Reelection Fight

WASHINGTON ― Sen. Jon Tester has a herculean task this year: win reelection in Montana, a state where Donald Trump is overwhelmingly popular. And unlike his 2018 bid for reelection, he’ll be sharing the ballot with the former president this time, making the job all that more difficult. 

Trump won Montana by 20 points in 2016 and by 16 points in 2020. Endangered Senate Democrats like Tester and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who are running in red states, could face even stronger headwinds if Trump draws high numbers of Republican voters to the polls in November.

The three-term incumbent Democratic senator from Montana has been busy drawing contrasts with President Joe Biden’s administration in hopes of boosting his independent bonafides and attracting split-ticket voters. He’s also leaned heavily into rural issues and key Senate accomplishments, including legislation to improve the quality of veterans’ health care. 

In an interview, Tester said he isn’t concerned about polling showing Biden trailing Trump badly in Montana and expressed confidence about the state of his race against likely GOP challenger Tim Sheehy, the ex-Navy SEAL backed by Trump. Notably, polls have found him runningahead of both Sheehy and Biden.

“I feel good. We’re going to run our own race based on my brand,” Tester told HuffPost. 

“We’ve always done that,” the Carhartt-wearing farmer said of his recent efforts to distance himself from his party. “It’s only been magnified because I’m up for reelection.”

Vulnerable Senate Democrat Jon Tester is drawing contrasts with President Joe Biden's administration as he gears up for a tough November reelection fight.
Vulnerable Senate Democrat Jon Tester is drawing contrasts with President Joe Biden's administration as he gears up for a tough November reelection fight. Tom Williams via Getty Images

The Montana Democrat has bucked his party in the past, most notably on the issue of gun restrictions. 

Earlier this month, Tester joined Republicans insupporting the Laken Riley Act, becoming the first Senate Democrat to do so. The GOP immigration bill, which passed in the House with bipartisan support, would require federal officials to apprehend and detain undocumented immigrants who commit certain crimes. It was named after a 22-year-old nursing student who was killed by a migrant while out on a run near the University of Georgia campus earlier this year. 

“It’s the right thing to do,” Tester said when asked why he decided to support the bill. 

Tester will get another chance to tout his support for border security when the Senate votes this week on thebipartisan immigration dealthat Republicans blocked earlier this year. The GOPwalked away from the deal ― which they helped write — at the last minute after Trump told them to kill it because he didn’t want to give Biden an election-year victory. Republican senators have called the new effort to advance the bill a political stunt, vowing to again oppose it. 

But the vote will give vulnerable Democrats like Tester an opportunity to hammer Republicans for opposing the conservative immigration policies already written into the bill, including allowing the government to more easily expel migrants at the border, restrict claims for parole and make it significantly harder for migrants to claim asylum.

Tester has shown an independent streak on other key issues as well. He voted last year to block Biden’s original student loan relief program, joining Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). This year, he’s supported efforts to block several new Biden administration rules, including on electric vehicles, nursing homes, and allowing for the importation of beef, a key industry in Montana.

Although the senator has mostly focused on domestic issues during his tenure on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, he broke with Biden over his threat to withhold some aid to Israel if it moves ahead with a military invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians are located. He toldCNN earlier this month that Biden should release the aid.

Tester and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown are running for another term in states where Trump is overwhelmingly popular.
Tester and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown are running for another term in states where Trump is overwhelmingly popular. AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib

Tester has been far more vocal about salient issues in Montana, like pressing U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to protectmail operations in the rural state.

The Montana Senate race is critical to the GOP’s plans to retake control of the upper chamber next year. Since Manchin’s West Virginia seat is all but certain to flip after he retires, Republicans need to win just one more seat to gain the majority. Montana and Ohio are viewed as their best bets.

Republicans are already spending tens of millions in ads hitting Tester, and they scoff at his moves to the right on issues like immigration as insincere. 

“The last conversion I saw like this was Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told HuffPost.

Trump, meanwhile, is taking another approach to the race. He’s mocking Tester’s weight, telling his supporters that the senator “looks pregnant.”

“Have you seen this guy? He doesn’t look like a fat guy, except his stomach is out to here,” Trumpsaid at a fundraiser this month.

Democrats, meanwhile, are holding on to hope that if anyone can pull it out and save their majority, it’ll be the flat-topped, seven-fingered dirt farmer from Big Sky country who pulled off a narrow 2018 victory against Republican Matt Rosendale with a similar strategy focused on authenticity. 

“They don’t look at Jon as a big Democrat. He’s just original,” Manchin, another red state Democrat, said of Tester. “Being original, no one can help you on that.”

Sen. John Fetterman (Pa.) also said he had confidence in Tester: “He’s a real dude. He’s straight up Mr. Montana.”

“Jon Tester goes back to his farm ― that’s hard work,” added Sen. Raphael Warnock (Ga.), who helped deliver Democrats a majority in 2020. “That kind of gritty commitment to work, to the struggles of ordinary people, to managing all of that, that informs his work in the Senate and I think people in Montana see and understand it, and he’s going to win.”