Trump tries swaying close Montana Senate race

President Donald Trump visited Montana to campaign for Republican Senate hopeful Matt Rosendale. But during his rally at Missoula International Airport, it became clear the trip might have been more about who he was campaigning against.

Posted: Oct 23, 2018 5:27 PM
Updated: Oct 23, 2018 5:27 PM

President Donald Trump visited Montana last week to campaign for Republican Senate hopeful Matt Rosendale. But during his rally at Missoula International Airport, it became clear the trip might have been more about who he was campaigning against.

"Your senator is a disgrace," Trump said, referring to two-term Democrat Jon Tester.

Tester earlier this year was one of the lawmakers responsible for torpedoing Trump's nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson.

"He hands out prescriptions like candy," Tester said in April. "In fact, in the White House, they call him the 'candy man.'"

Trump hasn't forgotten.

"They made up a series of lies that were horrible. And Jon Tester led the group," Trump told the crowd. "And that's really why I'm here. It's not that we need the votes so badly. I think we're going to do very nicely in the Senate and pick up seats. I can never forget what Jon Tester did to a man of the highest quality."

Jackson said on withdrawing his nomination for the position in April that several allegations made against him were "completely false and fabricated."

Tester's treatment of Jackson, a Navy rear admiral, is a key issue in a state with the second-highest per-capita population of veterans in the country.

Rosendale supporters see Tester as making an unfounded character attack on a doctor who served presidents of both parties. Tester's supporters say it was an effort to stop an unqualified nominee from taking over an agency with 370,000 employees -- an opinion given a surprise endorsement from Trump himself at his rally: "He might not have been qualified, but he was a doctor at a very high level," Trump said of Jackson.

Dirt farmer vs. real estate developer

Tester and Rosendale are as different as their supporters.

Tester has lived his entire life in Montana, a third-generation dirt farmer who brags about his $10 flattop haircut (including the tip, his website notes).

Rosendale became wealthy as a real estate developer in Maryland and -- despite moving to Montana in 2002 and serving as a state senator and state auditor -- is still trying to shake a carpetbagger reputation.

"He's an East Coast developer who came to the state, bought a ranch, claims to be a rancher but has no cows," Tester told CNN's Gloria Borger in an interview. Ads attacking Rosendale have termed him "all hat and no cattle."

Despite multiple requests, Rosendale's campaign did not make him available for an interview.

The lack of Montana roots isn't a concern for Rosendale supporter Rudy Koestner who waited for hours to attend Trump's rally.

"Quite frankly, he's an American. That's what's important," Koestner said. "If he's not a Montanan then why was he in the Montana legislature? He was elected from this district as a Montanan legislator. That proves he's got to be a Montanan."

Tester has also attacked Rosendale for his stance on the ownership of public lands, health care and funding for veterans.

Rosendale, for his part, has tied himself closely to Trump -- and attacked Tester for being too liberal for Montana.

"We need to send President Trump some conservative reinforcements who will end the liberal obstruction and work with him to pass his agenda," Rosendale told supporters after his primary win.

Voters looking beyond party

With the Senate race in Montana -- a state that Trump won by 20 points -- up for grabs, Tester is relying on more than a decade spent forging a personal connection with voters -- and their history of not voting a straight party-line ticket.

"Montana has a history of splitting tickets," said Tester supporter Mick Ringsack before speaking at a Tester rally last week. "We've got a Democratic governor, a Republican attorney general, one Democratic senator, one Republican senator."

Ringsack, a Vietnam veteran and also a Trump supporter, said he would vote for Trump again today, but added, "Jon has done so much for Montana and veterans that we can't afford to lose him."

But Montana's overall political complexion is deep red -- giving Tester a fine line to walk. He's made a reputation of bipartisanship and declines to attack the President as Democrats elsewhere have done.

"I think it's about him loving Montana," Tester said with a chuckle when asked about the President making his third visit to the state this campaign season to support his opponent. "Look, he has an opportunity to come to the state and we appreciate him coming."

Still, when Montanans choose between him and his opponent, many will be looking beyond party.

"I don't think I've ever really thought of myself as just a Democrat or Republican," said Kelli Neumayer, who said she was still undecided on her Senate vote as she waited for Trump to take the stage. "I really kind of look to see the see who is going to do the best job."

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