Poking the Bear

It's now likely that the president will land in our state to campaign against Tester

By Kellyn Brown

Montana Sen. Jon Tester ended up in President Donald Trump’s crosshairs last week after he released allegations of misconduct critical of Ronny Jackson, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. The administration scrambled to defend its choice, but Jackson withdrew from consideration.

For the president’s part, he told the Fox & Friends morning show that there was no proof of the allegations and Montana’s senior senator, a Democrat, “has a big price to pay.” He later said Tester should resign.

Tester was already expected to be in a tough reelection campaign in a state Trump won by 20 points. And now the president, who is known to hold grudges, is expected to campaign for whomever ends up as the Republican nominee for Tester’s seat.

“Jon poked the bear,” a Republican senator told Politico following Jackson’s derailed nomination. “Did you see the bear today? The bear was mad.”

Tester defended the move, telling the Associated Press that it’s his duty as the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to scrutinize the nominees: “We had a job to do and we did it.”

The senator is by no means the first politician to draw the president’s wrath. Trump has attacked Democrats and Republicans and even members of his own administration, most notably Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

Nonetheless, Tester’s critics pounced. The Montana Republican Party released a statement, saying, “Obstructionist Jon Tester once again shows that he is a two-face politician.” And state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who is running for Tester’s seat, said, “He keeps promising Montanans he’ll work with the President, but instead he’s giving us a load of manure.”

While Republicans, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, have suggested Tester unnecessarily embarrassed Trump’s nominee by circulating a memo detailing allegations of misconduct, Jackson’s confirmation was already in doubt as members of both parties questioned whether he was qualified to head a department with some 36,000 employees.

In other words, it’s unlikely this will be an issue that sways many Montana voters. But now it is very likely that the president will land in our state to campaign against Tester. Who knows what he’ll say, but Trump is reportedly “livid” and, whether deserved, could throw a wrench in the senator’s narrative that he actively works with the president to reach common goals.

Last month, in one of his first campaign ads, Tester highlighted 13 bills he has sponsored that have become law. In it, he says, “Washington’s a mess, but that’s not stopping me from getting bills to help Montana signed into law by President Trump.” At the same time, along with leading the opposition to Jackson, Tester opposed the nomination of Mike Pompeo, who was confirmed last week as secretary of state in a 57-42 vote.

Despite Trump’s popularity in Montana, both the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia consider Tester’s chances of reelection better than many of his Democratic colleagues in similarly red states. Poking the bear may not change those forecasts, but it certainly has the potential to change the narrative and raise the profile of a campaign that the president is actively targeting.

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