Jon Tester, a Democrat in Deep-Red Montana, Isn’t Sweating Trump’s Threats

Senator Jon Tester cleaning an air filter for a tractor on his farm in Big Sandy, Mont.

BIG SANDY, Mont. — Under a nearly cloudless sky on the sun-speckled northern prairie last Tuesday, Jon Tester, this state’s senior senator, had his hands deep inside a 25-year-old grain auger.

In Washington, the White House was letting it be known that President Trump was planning a summertime blitz against Democrats running for re-election in states that he had won, a tour that would surely bring him to Montana, where the president’s margin was 20 percentage points.

Mr. Tester had recently torpedoed the nomination of the president’s personal physician, Ronny L. Jackson, to be his secretary of veterans affairs, incurring Mr. Trump’s wrath — “very dishonest and sick!” the commander in chief thundered on Twitter.

But Mr. Tester, a third-generation lentil and pea farmer trying to make up for a late spring, was far more concerned with a broken shear pin that had stopped his bright red auger, which he needed to raise and store leftover seed from the 1,800 or so acres his family has been working for a century. Another repair job a few days earlier had taken out a fresh chunk of flesh from his famously mangled left hand. (Mr. Tester lost three fingers to a meat grinder as a child.)

“See, this job was supposed to take 45 minutes three days ago,” he said with amusement, beads of sweat dripping from his close-cropped hair, as Sharla, his wife and farming partner, looked on. “I’m gonna need a designated cusser,” he added, before filling the job himself.

If nothing else, Mr. Tester is incautious, at least compared to most of the other Senate Democrats up for re-election this fall in states that Mr. Trump won big. While Mr. Tester voted against the president’s nominees for secretary of state and C.I.A. director, the Democratic senators from West Virginia, North Dakota and Indiana were quick to register votes in support. They certainly did not publicize blistering charges against Dr. Jackson or any other Trump cabinet nominee.

“I know things about Tester that I could say, too,” the president warned ominously at a campaign rally in late April, after a weekend of tweets calling for the Montanan to resign. “And if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”

The attacks sent a bolt of energy through Republicans here and in Washington, who warn that Mr. Tester should not be so sanguine. They say his liberal voting record — against Neil M. Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, against the Republican tax cuts, and against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — belies his claims to be a Montana moderate and makes him out of sync with his state. And with Mr. Trump and his policies largely viewed favorably here, they are betting that an engaged president can help drive a decisive wedge between Mr. Trump’s voters and their senator.

“Jon Tester no longer can say that he supports the principles and values of the people of Montana,” said Matt Rosendale, the state auditor, who is the front-runner in Tuesday’s Republican primary. He added that “the people of Montana know it now.”

But unlike other red-state Democrats, Mr. Tester did not draw a top-tier Republican challenger. Two top potential recruits stayed out of the race — Ryan Zinke, a former congressman and the current interior secretary, and Montana’s attorney general, Tim Fox. Mr. Rosendale, who has tied himself closely to Mr. Trump, is seen as slightly less of a threat — the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the seat as likely Democratic.

“The only way you can knock out Jon Tester is if you shake people’s faith in his strength,” said David C.W. Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University who wrote a book about Mr. Tester’s 2012 campaign. “Whether it will work, I’m not too sure.”

On his farm, surrounded by a sparsely populated expanse of quietude, Mr. Tester said he was confident that after 12 years in Washington, voters understood where he was coming from.

“This is important. This is who I am,” Mr. Tester, 61, said as he took a seat in the shade of his tool shop and looked out over a piece of the flat farmland his grandparents first homesteaded a century ago.

That, in short, is Mr. Tester’s pitch for a third term in Washington. In a state that is still largely rural and tinged with a libertarian mistrust of big government, Mr. Tester drives a beat-up pickup truck, shoots guns and has little to say about his party’s internecine fights. Voters know where he stands, he reasons. Mr. Rosendale, he is likely to remind voters, is a real estate developer from Maryland.

Mr. Tester is betting that his votes against high-profile Republican priorities will matter less than the support he has lent to measures like the repeal of Dodd-Frank banking regulations on community banks that are popular with Montanans. One in 10 Montanans is a veteran, making his role as a Democratic linchpin for a flood of veterans legislation coming out of Washington a particularly valuable asset. And despite the president’s tongue-lashing, Mr. Tester said he would welcome a visit.

For now, that message appears to be resonating.

In Fort Benton, a sleepy hamlet along the banks of the Missouri River not far from Big Sandy, Ron Young, the president of the town bank, said that he identified with conservative policies, but admired Mr. Tester. Over a midday tea one day last week, Mr. Young sounded pleasantly surprised that the senator — whom he has known for years from his work on the state banking association — had voted in favor of repealing parts of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law in an effort to ease regulations on small and medium-size banks like his.

“I think that overall, Jon is seen as somebody who will listen to you,” Mr. Young said. “He might vote differently, but he’s honest in his approach. That’s rare.”

Mr. Young said he had bristled when Mr. Trump set his sights on Mr. Tester over the failed Jackson nomination.

“I have a real problem with him being attacked just for raising it,” Mr. Young said. And, he added quietly, “I don’t believe for a minute Jon was making things up.”

A few hours away, in Butte, a labor stronghold in the copper-rich mountains of southwest Montana that has been slowly shifting away from Democrats, Chris Thomas said Mr. Tester was a rare breed: He follows through.

“Butte doesn’t seem to fall into play with a lot of things we’re promised,” Ms. Thomas said during a break from work at Wilhelm Flower Shoppe. The daughter and wife of veterans, Ms. Thomas was speaking of the recent commitment, secured in part by Mr. Tester after more than a decade of trying, for federal funding to build a 40-bed veterans home there. “I like to feel somebody is speaking a voice for me,” she said.

She doubted that the president she voted for could sway her away from the senator she still supports.

“I’m stronger for Tester, I think, than Trump,” she said.

Katie Hanning, another Trump supporter who manages a home builders association in Great Falls, was left with an unsavory feeling by the Jackson episode, but she said that on balance, she was pleased with Mr. Tester’s vote on the banking bill and his role shaping legislation that will make it easier for veterans to see private doctors.

“We let a lot of that noise be noise for a while and then make a decision,” Ms. Hanning said.

“Are we 100 percent happy with him?” she said. “No, but we’re happy.”

Still, that is far from a consensus view. Mr. Tester has never won more than 50 percent of the vote here, and large rural swaths of the state remain out of reach for him. Even in Butte, a mining town where he retains strong support, the senator has some detractors.

“I have absolutely no love for him at all,” said Jerry Kennedy, a musician who has shifted from supporting Democrats to mostly Republicans. He painted the treatment of Dr. Jackson as the latest example of Mr. Tester’s dishonesty.

“He absolutely trashed him. There was absolutely no reason to do that,” Mr. Kennedy said.

But Bill Hill, a retired conservationist and guide who was sitting a few yards away, interjected that Mr. Tester was better than most politicians he had voted to send to Washington. And, he added, with a look toward his friend: “He’s the only guy in Washington with a flattop haircut.”

“O.K., I’ll go with that,” Mr. Kennedy nodded. “I like the haircut.”

Mr. Tester is unapologetic about the way he handled the charges against Dr. Jackson. They were serious, including allegations that he loosely administered drugs as the White House doctor and drank on the job, and they came from serious people, he said.

“Sweep it under the table and act like nothing happened? That’s not my style,” Mr. Tester said.

He was sitting at the kitchen table inside his modest aluminum-siding-clad home the weekend after Dr. Jackson withdrew his nomination when his chief of staff called to report the president’s tweets.

They were brutal, the men agreed. That’ll make some news, Mr. Tester recalled saying. Then he got on his tractor to lay seed that a wet winter had delayed for about a month.

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