The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jon Tester could teach Democrats a lot about rural America — if he can keep his Senate seat

After long day of farm work, Sen. Jon Tester removes his dirty boots in the garage on his Montana farm. As a red-state Democrat, he offers useful insights for his party — but faces a tough 2018 race. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

BIG SANDY, Mont. — When Sen. Jon Tester was 9 years old, he had a job: take meat from cows slaughtered on his family’s farm and feed it into the steel maw of a meat grinder. The motor took it from there, pushing the beef through four spinning blades and then squeezing it, like toothpaste, out a series of small holes. It was a powerful, dangerous machine, something Tester learned the hard way the day it sliced off three of his fingers.

He doesn’t remember his left hand slipping in but remembers pulling it out. Blood splattered the walls of the butcher shop. Tester pressed his right hand over the wound to stop the bleeding, pushing so hard his bones bore holes into his palm. He was in too much shock to feel pain.

His mother whisked him to their blue 1965 Pontiac Bonneville station wagon and high-tailed it to the closest hospital.

Fortunately, it was only 13 miles away.

“It’s hospitals like that out here in rural America that will close down if we don’t look out for them,” the second-term Democrat said recently from his Montana farm. “If you tack on another 35 miles on that trip, who knows, I could be dead.”

Tester is now 60. He’s close to 300 pounds and sports a flat-top haircut. He works the land his parents and grandparents worked before him. He still uses the same meat grinder.

Today, it’s his Democratic Party that’s gravely injured. It lost the White House to Donald Trump, thanks in large part to a rural population that has grown more and more Republican. Next year, when a handful of vulnerable red-staters, including Tester, will be forced to defend their Senate seats, things look as if they might get worse.

Suddenly, a party that has focused on expanding its base to include more women, minorities and young people is looking to a seven-fingered farmer from Montana to help stop the bleeding.

A rural Democrat plows ahead

April 13, 2017 | Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a fifth-generation wheat farmer, works his farm between rainstorms in Big Sandy, Mont. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Last month, members of Congress flew home for a two-week recess that most would fill with town halls, fundraisers and CNN appearances from remote locations. Tester spent his break on a tractor, tilling the land for organic peas on an 1,800-acre farm that has been in the family for more than 100 years.

“If Sharla and I don’t do it,” he said, referring to his wife of nearly 40 years, “it won’t get done.”

This week, try as he might, not a lot was getting done anyway. He spent a morning shooting gophers out of his pickup-truck window and waiting for his fields to dry after an unexpected rain. He lost another full day to cursing, welding and crawling around on all fours in an effort to fix a spindle that broke on his cultivator.

“The main thing is he’s authentic,” Steve Bullock, the state’s Democratic governor, said later in a phone interview.

Beto O’Rourke is a Mexico-loving liberal in Texas. Can he really beat Ted Cruz?

You’ve gotta be folksy if you want to win in Montana as a Democrat. But the truth is that Tester is as much a member of the Beltway elite as any other senator. He just happens to know how to use a tractor for more than a photo op.

After graduating from the College of Great Falls, Tester took over the family farm in 1978, while teaching at Big Sandy High School. A stint on the school board whetted his taste for politics, and he won a seat in the state Senate in 1998. In 2006, he decided to challenge U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, the three-term Republican who had been damaged by ties to scandal-plagued lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and eked out a win.

"I pride myself in taking Montana back to Washington, D.C., and working with people," he said. (Video: C-SPAN)

For the past two years, he’s raised money for his party brethren as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He spent election night watching returns with Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Harry M. Reid. He eats at Morton’s, owns a house in the District, and has a son who lives there.

Naturally, when Republicans land on a candidate to run against him — most likely Attorney General Tim Fox — they will try to paint Tester as a “Washington insider.” It’s nothing new. During the 2012 election a billboard went up outside of Helena showing Tester hugging President Obama. It’s still up today.

So, is he Mr. Montana, or a D.C. Denizen?

Or can he be both?

He brings worn-out dress shirts from his Senate office to wear as work shirts on the farm, and returns with beef butchered on the farm to eat in his Senate office. He once skinned a pig in Northeast Washington for some Capitol Hill staffers hoping to roast it for a backyard blowout.

“When he first got to the Senate he used to go missing,” said Stephanie Schriock, his former chief of staff, now the president of Emily’s List. “It turns out he had found the welding room in the basement of Dirksen where they make air shafts and furniture. So I’d find him there, wearing a tie no less, welding stuff together.”

He spent 2016 making fundraising calls from the cab of his tractor, and in Democratic leadership meetings he served as a gut-check for how messaging and policy would play in the heartland.

“The caucus listens to him,” Schumer said.

For all the Small Town that Tester injects into This Town, he also understands the value of bringing some Washington back to Montana as well.

“People here might say they hate the federal government,” he said. “But the fact is, they need it to survive.” Without the farm bill, a safety net, or subsidized insurance premiums, plenty of these farms would disappear at an even quicker rate than they already do.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s just a matter of better marketing.”

Every six years, Tester’s neighbor puts out yard signs in support of whatever Republican is running against him.

“I’ve never done anything to him,” Tester said, gesturing from his tractor to a house a couple hundred yards away. “And because I’m a Democrat he hates me with a passion.”

This kind of thing is a common-enough occurrence in a state that gave Trump 55 percent of the vote. (Tester has never topped 50 percent.) Now, more than ever, Democrats are realizing that any path to regaining their power must go through the small towns that Trump won.

“I think that for too long the Democratic Party has been branded by the views of the coasts,” said Heidi Heitkamp, the junior senator from North Dakota who is also up for reelection in 2018. “Jon doesn’t just represent Montana but all of rural America.”

Doing so sometimes puts him out of step with factions of the party. When he last ran for reelection he had an A rating from the NRA and drew progressive ire for voting against the Dream Act, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for the foreign-born children of undocumented immigrants.

Have liberals found their combative new leader in … Keith Olbermann?

Sometimes it can feel as if Tester is more willing to take a shot at Sen. Bernie Sanders (“I like Bernie, but he needs to see himself as a senator, not the leader of a movement”) than at Trump (“I’ve got my problems with Trump, but I’m going to give him every opportunity to succeed”). It took him longer than any Democrat in Senate leadership to endorse Hillary Clinton, and he dragged his feet before coming out against Neil M. Gorsuch’s nomination for the Supreme Court.

Giving Trump the benefit of the doubt tends to draw accusations from Democrats of “normalizing” him or giving him cover to accomplish an agenda that will help Republicans in 2018 and beyond. But Tester knows he shares a lot of voters with the president, voters who liked that Trump showed up and delivered a message that resonated: Blow up the government. Bring back jobs. Spend on infrastructure.

“Democrats, we didn’t have any kind of unified message,” he said. His party, Tester contends, would be better off to stop “leading” with issues such as gay rights (which he supports), bathroom bills and Trump’s sexism, and to start heeding the appeal in the way the president talked about the economy.

Of course, even a cautious alignment with Trump comes with pitfalls. Tester experienced this after he and nine other moderate senators took a meeting with him at the White House. He was there to discuss the problems his constituents were having with Medicare and Medicaid, but all anyone seemed to care about after the fact was that Trump referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as “Pocahontas” and Tester did nothing to object.

“My goal there was to try and build a relationship, not call him an a--hole the first time I met him,” Tester said, still smarting from the bad press he got back home.

Tester knows that no matter what he does, there will be plenty of Montanans he will never win over. He can literally bleed for his neighbors and still be seen as just another big-government Democrat to oppose every six years.

“This is going to sound really crude,” he said swinging his tractor around. “But I lost my fingers in a meat grinder. You know who I was cutting meat for?” He gestured to the home of his neighbors, a family that has been there as long as he. The ones who’ve been putting up the signs.

It took Tester nearly a decade after the accident to use the meat grinder again, and for longer than that the slightest touch to his finger nubs caused crippling pain.

But his skin has thickened. The pale scars that swirl atop his undulating palm have faded. His pinkie has grown as strong and thick as the index finger on his right hand. He doesn’t see his hand as “mangled” but as “functional.” For some tasks, such as changing oil filters, it’s actually easier to have fewer digits to get in the way.

The world around him has changed, too. Farms are consolidating. His old high school has only about 50 students, a quarter of the enrollment when he went there. The old way of life is dying, and so are the people.

Last September, Tester’s nephew was murdered in Washington state, a matter so painful he is still reluctant to discuss it. A month later, Tester’s barber, a man who had been giving him the same haircut for 25 years, died at 80. In recent weeks, Tester lost his father-in-law, who had suffered from dementia, and a favorite cousin, who had bone cancer.

All this death has Tester thinking about legacy. About what more he can do for Montana in the Senate, about what he can do for a party that has all but moved from places such as Big Sandy to the big cities, about what is going to happen to his farm. His son lives in the District and is not inclined to take it over. His daughter and son-in-law might still be persuaded, but they have three children. And who would want to move to a town that’s now too small to field a high school baseball team?

“My dad will die on his tractor,” his daughter, Christine, had said at the house earlier that morning. “And what happens to this place when he gets plucked off the face of the Earth? We’ve still got a lot to learn.”

That afternoon Christine’s husband, James, took a turn out on the tractor and promptly got stuck in the mud. Tester rode out to give him a hand, shaking his head and trying not to think about how far behind he was falling. He’d show James what to do but knew there was no guarantee he’d take to it.

“You can’t lobby someone to take a place like this over,” he said. “In the end, you really just have to want it.”