Democrats are counting on a Montana moderate in 2024
The GOP could take Senate control if it can defeat Jon Tester
Viki Erb, a retired nurse who lives in Akron, Ohio, didn’t always pay attention to local, or even national politics. But what started out as a recreational love for history gradually turned into a watchful eye for key races and issues. Over the next year, she will monitor Twitter for any mention of Montana—and, more specifically, its Democratic senator, Jon Tester.
She’s worried about his reelection odds in 2024.
“He’s a fabulous person … the most important thing of all in this contest is that he’s in a lynchpin state,” Erb said. “That means he’s really going to try to keep the Senate with the Democrats.”
Across the nation, many are asking the same question as Erb: Will Tester’s Senate seat decide control of the upper chamber of Congress? Democrats have a 51-49 majority now, but Republicans only need to win two more seats to tilt the balance of power in their favor. Tester must convince a red-leaning state to vote for a Democratic senator in 2024, a year when they’ll likely support a Republican presidential candidate.
Tester is a farmer—not a rancher. But when it comes to beating out Republican challengers, this is far from his first rodeo. In the 2018 election, Tester won reelection with 50.3 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 46.8 percent. In 2012, he won by a vote of 48.6 percent to 44.9 percent. And in 2006, when he was first elected, he narrowly beat incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns 49.2 percent to 48.3 percent.
During the same time period, every Republican presidential candidate has won the state by more than 10 points except for John McCain in 2008, who edged out a 2.5 percent victory over Barack Obama.
Montana State Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Mont., believes Tester’s success is largely due to two factors: his focus on Montana as an individual state and his work with veterans.
“His votes in D.C. are pragmatic votes,” Stafman said. “He is a Democrat but doesn’t always vote with the Democrats. Sometimes I disagree with him, but, overall, he gets what it means to be a regular working person in Montana.”
Stafman said outside pundits often do not understand Montana voters’ high interest in local issues. The state has just over a million residents—less than the population of Brooklyn, N.Y. Stafman has been surprised on several occasions by restaurant waiters who comment on floor debates in the Montana legislature. As a result, he feels short-changed by national media attempts to make a Democratic label in Montana synonymous with some of the party’s national ambitions.
“Montana has been a very independent state, unattached to ideology … I still haven’t received my check from George Soros,” Stafman said jokingly, referring to the billionaire donor known for donating to left-wing candidates and organizations. “[Montanans] aren’t big fans of federal government, necessarily.”
Tester’s stances on issues such as gun rights, conservation, farming, and law enforcement overlap with right-of-center policies. But he also supports some pro-abortion elements of the Democratic Party’s platform. And he voted for President Joe Biden’s signature legislative packages such as the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Apart from those issues, Tester is most known for his work with America’s service members. He’s chair of the Veteran Affairs Committee. Last year, Tester helped the Senate come to a consensus on a bill to provide financial support for veterans injured by combat field burn pits.
According to the 2022 Montana Veterans Affairs Biennial Report, 80,300 veterans lived in the state in 2020—about 9 percent of the state’s adult population. That’s roughly 3 points higher than the national average of 6.4 percent.
Veterans in Montana could also help one of Tester’s challengers, former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy. Sheehy has pitched himself as a family-values and America-first candidate and has received backing from the National Republican Senatorial Committee since announcing his campaign in June. Matt Rosendale—now a Republican congressman—is also rumored to be preparing to join the race.
Another factor may make the U.S. Senate race in Montana unpredictable, Stafman said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state’s population has increased by 2.6 percent since 2021, mainly due to transplants from states like California and Texas. Last year, a moving report demonstrated that Montana is picking up roughly three residents for every one that moves out. That’s the highest rate in the U.S.
But how many of them are Republican? How many are Democrats? It’s unknown because the state doesn’t require voters to register along party lines. The population of Stafman’s district in the Bozeman area has grown by 70 percent over the course of the past decade. He thinks Tester might have a harder time winning over newcomers who are unfamiliar with his work.
While Erb thinks the national spotlight might hurt Tester’s odds, Stafman actually thinks the opposite. He believes that the more national Democrats and Republicans attempt to place Tester neatly in one box, the more it will play in his favor.
“By nationalizing the election, they think they can fool people into thinking that Jon Tester is a culture warrior on the wrong side, rather than Jon Tester, the guy who’s there for vets, farmers, for the conservation people,” he said.
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