The New Normal in Montana Politics

President Trump’s tiff with two-term Sen. Tester rounds out a tumultuous year in politics that frequently saw the Treasure State thrust into the national spotlight. What’s next for Montana’s increasingly prominent political profile?

By Tristan Scott

Montana once again found itself at the center of a national controversy late last month when President Donald Trump launched a forceful salvo aimed at Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

The rotund, flattop-sporting, seven-fingered farmer from Big Sandy recently garnered prominent attention for his reveal of reports, many of them anonymous, about the president’s nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, an organization of 360,000 employees serving 10 million veterans and their families, including about 100,000 in Montana, which is home to one of the highest rates of veterans per capita.

Whether the latest dust-up involving a Montana politician lands with a splash or a thud with voters in the Treasure State won’t be evident until the November election, but the dispute certainly raised Tester’s national profile, and it’s surely an issue his opponents will continue to seize upon.

Still, it serves as the latest example of the national news cycle shining its garish light on Montana politics as headlines buzz with news about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Whitefish native, former congressman, Navy SEAL and state legislator who has been discussed in national outlets for a complex suite of issues, including taking taxpayer-funded flights to the decision-making that led him to scale back protections for Bears Ears National Monument; whether he’s too cozy with industry; how the majority of the National Park Service board resigned, citing Zinke’s unwillingness to meet with them; and his decision to ride a horse to work his first day on the job.

Meanwhile, Gov. Steve Bullock has been widely reported to be flirting with a presidential run in 2020, with lengthy profiles about the Montana Democrat appearing in high-profile media outlets.

And in the strangest wrinkle in Montana’s year in politics, Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte won Montana’s special election for the state’s lone U.S. House seat a year ago this month, triumphing in a bitter race that on its final day was beset with allegations that he assaulted a reporter. The wealthy tech entrepreneur from Bozeman ultimately pleaded guilty to assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on the eve of the election. When Jacobs approached the then-candidate at his campaign headquarters in Bozeman to ask a question about the Republican health care bill, Gianforte reacted by throwing the reporter to the ground and punching him.

Tongue-in-cheek reports quickly noted that it was “the body slam heard round the world.”

Late last month, news about the tiff between Trump and Tester rolled across the nation like a riptide when the president tweeted out a series of scathing critiques about Montana’s senior senator, who serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Trump called on him to resign and threatened vaguely that “I know things about Tester that I could say, too, and if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”

Trump’s rage was provoked by reports provided by 25 servicemen and women to Tester’s staff raising concerns about the qualifications of Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick to lead Veterans Affairs who in 2013 was appointed to the role of White House physician under the Obama administration.

The anonymous allegations, which Tester has defended as credible and consistent, accused Jackson of abusive behavior and professional misconduct in interviews with Democratic staff on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which is charged with vetting the president’s nomination. The reports raised serious concerns about his fitness, and included allegations of over-prescribing medication, drunkenness on the job and creating a hostile work environment.

Although Jackson and Trump furiously denied the accusations, the physician nonetheless withdrew his nomination, infuriating Trump and placing Tester squarely in the president’s crosshairs.

During a call-in to the show “Fox and Friends” and later in a series of tweets and a freewheeling speech in Michigan, Trump accused Tester of unfairly smearing the reputation of Jackson, a rear admiral, while making unspecified allegations against Tester and pledging to campaign against him during his high-profile re-election bid, one of five highly competitive Democratic seats that could help shift majority control of the chamber.

And while Tester will surely face a contentious and tight race in Montana, a red state that Trump won by 20 points, he’s not backing away from his conviction that making public the allegations against Jackson was the right thing to do and a central responsibility as a U.S. senator and ranking committee member.

What’s more, Tester said, is that Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, co-signed a letter with Tester calling for an investigation into Jackson. When asked to respond to questions regarding the allegations, Jackson was silent, Tester said, forcing the committee to release the reports.

It’s an odd position for Tester to be in, particularly given his volume of veteran-related work over the past 11 years, during which he has effectively advocated for veterans and worked to reform the VA.

During the current Congress, Tester has sponsored eight veteran-specific bills and ushered them into law under Trump, a degree of success the Democrat has used to curry favor with Montana’s characteristically independent voting base. Even though Trump won Montana handily by 20 points, for example, Bullock, a Democrat, also won his reelection bid by 4 points.

Tester is banking that his record of working for veterans will hold up and stand out, both as a salient pillar of his campaign and as a way to drown out Trump’s threats.

Tester’s work on behalf of Montana veterans figured prominently into a new ad featuring dozens of servicemen and women standing up for Tester. The 30-second spot, “Jon’s Got Our Back,” dropped May 8 and features veterans from across the state standing united in support of Tester and his record of fighting for veterans.

In the ad, one veteran after another describes ways in which Tester has helped them, they say in unison: “Jon’s got our back, so we’ve got his back.”

“Jon’s record speaks for itself — he will never stop fighting for Montana’s veterans,” Christie Roberts, campaign manager for Montanans for Tester, stated in a release announcing the new ad.

The message may well resonate with veterans.

“The Trump-versus-Tester thing is just a big schoolyard fight between politicians about politics,” Jonathan Devine, a Kalispell Army veteran of the Afghanistan War, said, adding that political feuds hold no interest for him. “What it should boil down to is veterans’ care. If that halts, then I have a problem. But right now, it’s just politicians yelling at each other.”

Earlier this year, Devine grew frustrated with an experience at the Kalispell VA clinic. His frustrations were born of a confusing rule that only allows veterans living further than 40 miles from a VA primary care facility to receive treatment from outside the VA system. Because he lived in close proximity to the Kalispell VA clinic, that wasn’t an option for Devine, and he was told he’d have to travel to the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison to receive the X-ray he needed.

He posted a video describing his frustrations with the clinic to Facebook, and it went viral. And it didn’t go unnoticed by Tester, who wrote President Trump to share Devine’s story and streamline community care by dispatching the 40-mile provision.

“Tester sent a letter to Trump while I was dealing with the 40-mile rule problem,” Devine said. “He sent a letter with my name on it advocating for vets. So yeah, I know that Tester is willing to go to bat for veterans.”

Mike Rippe, a veteran who lives in Proctor, said Tester can count on him and other veterans to “saddle up and cover his six.”

“If he says we deserve a better choice to head up the VA I believe him,” Rippe wrote in a letter to the Beacon. “He is an ally for Montana Vets and their families. Senator Tester has covered us, regardless of political stripe, when we needed it.”

Despite Trump’s verve for hurling political insults and his pledge to visit Montana to help unseat Tester, many political observers believe the issue won’t prove to be a sticking point for voters.

“If Trump thinks blasting Tester will harm the senator in his reelection bid, he’s revealing both his own political inexperience and a fundamental misunderstanding of Montana voters,” said David Parker, associate professor of political science at Montana State University and author of “Battle for the Big Sky,” which covers Tester’s competitive 2012 race.

Tester, who served in the Montana Legislature before his congressional election, was president of the Montana Senate in 2005, the year Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer was elected.

“I think most veterans in Montana know that Jon Tester has been in their corner from the very first day they were elected,” Schweitzer said, adding that while the controversy might seem significant in certain political circles, it’s largely background noise for Montana voters.

“A long time ago, this administration went over the edge of anything we have ever seen before. I get it that politicians sometimes push the truth and play games to achieve what they want, but this is a brand new world where the principal leader is in complete disagreement with reality,” Schweitzer said of Trump’s attacks.

Longtime Democratic operative Joe Lamson served as executive director of the state party from 1981 until 1983. From 1983 until 1996, he worked as statewide director for another longtime advocate of Montana’s veterans — Democratic U.S. Pat Williams. He also ran Williams’ re-election campaigns throughout that time, taking time without pay from his federal position.

Lamson doesn’t think Tester is at risk of losing footing as a moderate, but instead the political back-and-forth in Washington, D.C. will reinforce the beliefs of voters whose minds were already made up. He said veterans generally maintain a strong allegiance with their representatives once they see someone working in their corner.

“When you work with veterans it is a very staff-intensive relationship. You’re dealing with the livelihood of families and how they are coping, so there is a very strong bond that develops,” Lamson said. “They know who is working for them and who isn’t.”

Still, Lamson also pointed out that being singled out by the president in a major speech and from his notoriously volatile Twitter account “is not something I would take lightly.”

The White House even brought the feud to Tester’s home turf its Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short took to Montana’s airwaves to skewer the senator. Short called into the radio program “Montana Talks” to criticize Tester for his treatment of Jackson, as well as for voting against Trump’s Supreme Court and Cabinet picks. Short says the president’s staff is working to find schedule a trip to Montana to campaign against Tester.

Given there’s still a substantial gap between now and the general election, Lamson predicted it was only the beginning for Tester.

“The amount of money that has been spent now by outside groups trying to convince people that Jon is a saint or a scoundrel is just off the charts,” Lamson said. “And it’s just the beginning of May. The sheer volume of it, it’s just crazy. But you just wonder at what level do people really glom onto that. They might just turn off all this noise and wait for November.”

Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana and seasoned political analyst, says how Tester’s campaign controls the narrative will be critical to riding out the storm, and could ultimately benefit the incumbent senator between now and the still-distant election.

“It’s a long way from here to there. The big question is how will this story look in a month,” Banville said. “It’s either something where Donald Trump goes on one of his rants and fires off a tirade and voters view Washington as all about politics and a mess, and is Tester part of that, or it gives Tester an opportunity to make the point that he has always been a strong advocate for veterans and veterans’ care. And if he can make that the story, it could certainly help him. But if he looks like one of these Democrats that is just getting in the way and obstructing, which is what these outside groups are trying really hard to portray him as, that could be problematic.”