Montana Is a Must-Win for the GOP: What to Expect from the Rosendale-Tester Faceoff

Senate Republicans see race as critical to maintaining or even improving their narrow 51-49 majority

Image Credit: Pete Marovich/Getty Images & Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Montana voters will get to choose between incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) (above left) and his GOP challenger Matt Rosendale (right) in a week — with the race remaining a toss-up as of now.

Tester has fought hard to keep control of his seat for another six-year term as Election Day approaches, while Republicans have put a lot of attention on the race in the hopes the seat will flip. Both sides have received millions of dollars from outside groups and support from major political figures.

Senate Republicans see the race as critical to their chances of maintaining or even improving their narrow 51-49 majority. The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls on the race puts Tester at a 4.2 point lead — yet it still ranks the race a toss-up.

President Donald Trump has also taken a personal interest in the race.

“The western sagebrush rebellion-type Republicans are much more independent,” Republican pollster Adrian Gray told LifeZette this week. “I think North Dakota fits that mold as well, but Montana especially. When I think of independent Republicans who aren’t really following national party trends, I think the proportion of those Republicans is a lot higher in Montana.”

Related: Trump Lambastes Tester, Rallies Montana Republicans for Rosendale

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Trump could be making a critical difference; he was able to easily win the state during the 2016 presidential election. But his interest in the race goes beyond politics: The president has admitted a personal disdain for Tester. He’s attacked him for not protecting gun rights, for undermining immigration laws and for voting to protect Obamacare.

During a recent rally in the state on October 18, Trump admitted why he has so much animosity for Tester. The senator accused physician Ronny Jackson of passing prescription drugs around the White House after he was nominated as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The president said he will never forgive him for that accusation.

“It’s a Republican state,” Alex Conant, a partner at Firehouse Strategies and a Republican strategist, told LifeZette. “Tester is trying to run as a moderate and he’s running a good campaign. So it’s unquestionably a competitive race and I don’t think we’ll know the outcome until late in the night Tuesday. But it’s certainly not a given for either party.”

People need to take the polling with a grain of salt, Conant added, because the turnout is likely to be unprecedented on both sides — which makes it hard to predict.

Tester has presented himself as someone willing to rise above politics and work with the president for the benefit of the state.

“Generally a lot of elected officials [in Montana] have been fairly popular, looking more long-term over the last 20 years,” Gray, the GOP pollster, said. “[Tester] has been pretty well liked — it’s just [that] people disagree with him. For the most part, voters these days aren’t really voting issues, anyway. They’re voting personality and values. So long as they see him as one of them and someone who represents their values, then I think he’ll be supported.”

Rosendale’s focus has been veterans, illegal immigration, health care, and Second Amendment rights.

Tester has even highlighted legislation he was involved with that Trump has signed. His campaign has turned issues into policy objectives around government accountability, veterans, education, infrastructure and jobs.

Rosendale, for his part, has positioned himself as outside the entranced political class — someone who is looking to shake things up, much like Trump. He is currently the Montanan state auditor and was previously the majority leader of the Montana State Senate. His campaign has focused on veterans, illegal immigration, health care, and Second Amendment rights.

Related: Farmer and Rancher Face Off in Montana’s Key 2018 Senate Race

Tester prides himself on his commitment to government accountability and transparency. He was among the first lawmakers to post his daily schedules online and has banned staffers who become lobbyists from turning around and lobbying him — or being rehired.

Rosendale has accused him of blindly following special interests and Democratic leaders.

The two men have also highlighted their deep connections to the state as well as their farming and ranching experiences. Tester grew up and worked on a farm, which has been in his family for three generations. Rosendale has lived on his ranch for nearly two decades, though critics have argued his experience amounts to more of a hobby.

Tester has the fundraising advantage, as he’s spent $17,674,961 of the $19,227,650 he brought in as of October 29. Rosendale has only spent $4,204,778 of the $4,722,943 he’s been able to raise. Both candidates have received most of their funds through large individual contributions.

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