In late March, President Trump nominated the White House physician, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, to lead the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Like any senior Cabinet-level position, the post requires Senate confirmation, the first stage of which is a hearing held by the relevant committee. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, released a list of serious allegations against Jackson, after which the nominee withdrew. In response, Trump called on Tester to resign, saying, “I know things about Tester that I can say, too. And if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”
But 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.
Montana has a high percentage of veterans
Montana has more veterans per capita than every state save Alaska and Maine. So it’s no surprise that Tester, the ranking Democrat on Veterans’ Affairs Committee, would carefully scrutinize Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs — especially given Jackson’s lack of managerial experience, after Trump fired V.A. Secretary David Shulkin because of alleged ethics violations. The agency has been in turmoil since 2014, when a scandal erupted over veterans dying while awaiting care, which led to a congressional investigation and the departure of Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Once Jackson was nominated, 25 current and former members of the military came forward with troubling allegations about Jackson, including casually dispensing drugs, drunkenness on the job and a “toxic” work environment. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), wrote a letter that Tester co-signed asking to delay the nomination hearings. After Tester released some of these allegations to the national news media, Trump distanced himself from Jackson, who withdrew from consideration.
The White House released some records suggesting that some of the allegations may not have been true — but failed to release other documents that the committee requested. Then the president unleashed his attack on Tester, saying that he’d unfairly besmirched the character of a true patriot and that Tester should resign. Echoing those charges, some Montana Republicans, including the four Republican primary candidates for Tester’s seat, said that Tester “engaged in a smear campaign” that will cost him his seat in November. And one unidentified senator remarked that “Jon poked the bear [President Trump]. Did you see the bear today? The bear was mad.”
In Montana, Tester is known as a strong and effective veterans’ advocate
It’s unlikely that Tester will lose reelection. Here’s why: Since his election in 2006, Tester has steadily worked on behalf of military veterans. One of his first major legislative accomplishments was a successful floor amendment that increased the mileage reimbursement rates for veterans who traveled for medical care. And that was just the beginning. As Tester gained seniority, he kept scoring wins for veterans: a new V.A. clinic in Billings; funding for a veterans home in Butte, which has long been a priority for southwest Montana; and increased compensation for disabled veterans and their families. Most recently, the president signed into law Tester’s bill extending the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive health care from local providers.
According to Vanderbilt University’s Center for Effective Lawmaking, Tester was the fourth-most-effective Senate Democrat in the 114th Congress. In fact, Tester’s first television ad — which began running in mid-March — highlights the 13 bills Tester pushed that were signed by Trump.
I saw Tester’s connection to veterans up close during the 2012 campaign as I followed the senator and his opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg, around Montana for my book about that campaign. At a forum in Bozeman, a vet with 40 years of service told me that Tester “was the best that veterans had ever had” and that he would always “fight” for them. Others echoed that stalwart support at meetings throughout the state during that campaign, including one Republican woman whose family was close to the Rehbergs. She told me that “Tester is a wonderful man” who had done “great things, especially for veterans.”
With such a broad, strong reputation as a veterans’ advocate in Montana, Tesler can expect that voters will interpret these events as more of the same. If anything, the kerfuffle might actually help remind Montanans of Tester’s consistent advocacy on behalf of veterans — particularly independents and Republicans who never boarded the Trump train.
Trump may actually have helped Tester’s chances
Tester will always be vulnerable in a red-leaning state, but this dust-up may be the second-best thing to improve Tester’s prospects this fall, with Hillary Clinton’s November loss being the first.
In fairness to the unidentified senator, Montanans know a bear when they see one, and Trump is no grizzly.
David C.W. Parker is an associate professor of political science at Montana State University and author of “Battle for the Big Sky: Representation and the Politics of Place in the Race for the U.S. Senate” (CQ Press, 2014).