Tester puts reelection on the line with risky shutdown vote

- Januari 25, 2018

Every Democratic senator from a Republican-leaning state voted Monday to reopen the government, from the liberal Sherrod Brown of Ohio to the conservative Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Every one, that is, except Jon Tester.

Republicans are determined to make him pay.

The plainspoken Montanan was on a glide path to a third term despite the conservative tilt of his state — among the safest of red-state Democratic incumbents on the November ballot. Everything broke his way: First, President Donald Trump plucked former Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) for his Cabinet. Then, Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) body-slammed a reporter shortly before he was elected to replace Zinke. And, finally, Republican state Attorney General Tim Fox passed on a bid. Those were Tester’s three most formidable potential challengers.

But the spending vote has injected new life into Republicans’ hopes of giving Tester a fight — despite the senator’s adamance that he was doing right by his state.

Montana is one of five states that Trump won handily where Democrats are up for reelection this fall. And though Tester is recognized as a savvy campaigner, the GOP is hoping to make his race competitive enough to at least distract resources from other states, if not defeat Tester outright.

Tester recognizes the political risk he took. But he insisted in an interview that he had to send a message to party leaders that he wouldn’t abide shortchanging rural hospitals in his state and leaving the military in limbo.

Still, this could be the rare case when a single vote looms large in a Senate race. At the very least, Tester’s path to reelection certainly looks rockier than it did a week ago.

“That’s not the vote of somebody who’s running for reelection in a red state, I wouldn’t think. I think it’s a mistake,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It will be a big hurdle for him.”

“It would have been safer to take a walk,” Tester said in his defense. “But would it have gotten the point across that we need a budget that works for Montana? No. I didn’t get sent here to take walks.”

Despite all that, Tester took pains to distance himself from other Democrats who voted with him on Monday, including liberals like Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Those senators said they didn’t trust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to work on immigration legislation to deal with the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“This has never been about DACA for me, ever,” Tester said.

Still, Tester indicated he’s not inclined to take another vote that could be interpreted as supporting a shutdown.

“I have made my point. I will go to the floor and rail; I will rail against you. I don’t anticipate voting against another [funding bill],” Tester said. He said if his earlier votes don’t send a message to McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, then “you’ll never get their attention.”

Tester’s most likely opponent is state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who has received the backing of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the Club for Growth and other conservatives. In a phone interview Wednesday, Rosendale argued that Tester’s shutdown vote would infuriate Montana voters.

“He put the interests of illegal immigrants over the interests of Montana children and our servicemen,” Rosendale said. “Montanans don’t respect his obstructionist agenda.”

Asked to respond, Tester botched Rosendale’s name and accused him of spouting talking points.

“Somebody said: ‘Hey, Mr. Rosenberg, you say this.’ And, if he says that, then he’s done his job because he’s repeated the talking point,” Tester said. “I would love to get on the debate stage and have that debate” about the budget.

Of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats, Tester is generally considered the safest by national strategists in both parties. Democrats argue that no one knows the Montana electorate better than Tester, who defeated Sen. Conrad Burns in an upset in 2006 and won reelection over then-Rep. Denny Rehberg in 2012.

Democrats seem to think little of Rosendale or any of the other Republicans running.

“Tester represents his state really well. That’s one reason, he’s got, like, no opponent,” said Brown, who voted against government funding on Friday but for reopening the government on Monday.

Tester said he wasn’t an automatic “no.” He could have supported a spending bill through September that included money for an expired community health center program or provided more certainty to the military. But those were not included.

Attacks from groups, like the Senate Leadership Fund, that accuse him of voting against the troops are “totally horse crap,” Tester said, given Defense Secretary James Mattis’ pleas for a longer-term spending bill.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who is close with Tester and running for reelection in a similarly conservative state, said Tester has been “completely consistent” in opposing bills that don’t address community health clinics, a low-cost Medicaid drug program and long-term military stability.

“None of those things got fixed,” said Heitkamp, who voted Monday to reopen the government.

But Republicans say that explanation doesn’t cut it when the toll is a government shutdown. As Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) put it: “Shutting down the government is never popular.”

“He said he wouldn’t shut the government down. So I think there’s a lot of hard questions that have to be asked,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.

Republican groups have been dredging up Tester’s past quotes arguing against shutdowns, including in December when he said that “you don’t shut the government down” over DACA.

Fellow moderate Democrats said they were blindsided by Tester’s decision, which he said he did not discuss ahead of time with Schumer or any other senator. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said he spoke to Tester ahead of the voted and expected his colleague to vote yes.

“Jon is a dear, dear friend of mine, and I can’t figure that one out,” said Manchin. “It’s more than immigration. There’s something else Jon was pissed off about.”

Tester is fixated on helping the community health centers, whose funding expired in September and are operating on a short-term extension until March. One in 10 Montanans get health care from the centers, and some are in danger of closing — which, for some people, would mean no health care providers for hundreds of miles.

Republicans point to the 24,000 Montana children who get health care from a federal health care program for the poor (the funding bill included a six-year extension for it) vs. the few dozen DACA recipients in the state. Told Tester is arguing his vote was about community health centers rather than DACA, Rosendale replied: “One word. Bunk. B-u-n-k.”

But Tester said he had a meeting with two top officials from his state in the past two weeks, and they told him that, without a longer funding bill, “We’re going to lose some hospitals.” That was enough to cause the farmer from Big Sandy, Montana, to take one of the toughest votes of his career.

“This is pretty serious stuff,” he said. “The time to get proactive about this stuff is now. And that’s why I did what I did.”

As for the politics of his decision, Tester added: “Every vote I take is a risk. Every vote I take.”


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