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In Tester vs. Rosendale, Montanans are voting on land and independence

Yellowstone River flows by a grain tower in Glendive, Mont. (Gabriel Pogrund/The Washington Post)
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GLENDIVE, Mont. — The tallest structure here is a grain elevator that towers over the glistening Yellowstone River — once the only way of getting produce to market. The town is still difficult to reach, encircled by jagged rock formations, rugged hills and ranches, many accessible only via gravel road.

Many people in this community of 9,000 have been here their whole lives. They’ve seen the local Kmart close, oil booms give way to busts, and grain and beef prices fluctuate. They’ve seen land bought up by out-of-state investors who ban people from hunting and fishing on their land, a departure from state tradition. Three-quarters of votes cast in Glendive in 2016 went to Donald Trump, who won Montana by 20 points.

The town in the state’s far east is also home to Matt Rosendale, the Republican who’s trying to deny Democratic Sen. Jon Tester a third term and who will be in Missoula, a college town across the state from Glendive, for a rally with President Trump on Thursday night. The race has become a referendum on two things Montanans say they value: land and independence.

“It’s real sad to watch how things are going, especially out west. There’s more people there that own land that don’t run cattle on it than do anymore,” said Ty Zimdars, 46, a Republican rancher whose family has lived in the area for 100 years and who voted for Trump. “They come from California because they don’t want all the regulations out there. Now they’re coming and trying to change our rules.”

Tester has tried to buck the prevailing political sentiments by centering his campaign on his claim to be the only “real” Montanan in the race and the one who understands what’s at stake. He draws a contrast between his family farm in the northern part of the state, which he still runs, and the ranch bought in 2002 by his opponent, Matt Rosendale, a Maryland-born real estate developer and state auditor who moved here after the purchase.

Rosendale doesn’t have any cattle and leases his land to other ranchers. Tester and state Democrats have used that in attacks, calling Rosendale “Maryland Matt” and saying he is “All hat, no cattle.” Rosendale’s former support for transferring federal lands to the state, a charged issue that featured heavily in Montana’s most recent gubernatorial election and helped pave the way for the election of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, also became an issue. He now says he opposes the policy.

“Some ranchers just want more, more, more, and that’s how Rosendale is. They don’t care about public access” for hunting and fishing, said Pat Mischel, 62, chair of the Glendive Democratic Party and a retired railroader. “That’s the rancher attitude — get the government out the way, and let us raise our tackle and make our money and raise our kids by ourselves.”

Rosendale has portrayed himself as a Trump supporter whose views on gun rights, health care and taxation align him with the state’s conservative values. He has portrayed Tester as someone corrupted by Washington and beholden to national party leadership.

Trump’s appearance Thursday will be his third visit to Montana as president. Rosendale has also campaigned alongside Vice President Pence and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son.

The challenge Rosendale faces is whether in Montana, a state where many voters pride themselves on being independents, his fealty to the president on national issues will endear him to those who voted for the president — or alienate them. Tester remains narrowly ahead in most polls.

In more than a dozen interviews in Glendive this week, several residents who lean Republican said they were not persuaded by attacks over Rosendale’s links to Montana and were more concerned about his strategy of tying himself to the president.

Ty Ripley rented Rosendale’s land for five years to rear his cattle and said he would probably vote for him this year. He describes himself as a reluctant Trump voter who’s skeptical of Rosendale’s enthusiastic embrace of the president.

“I don’t know if I really agree with his strictly Trump agenda,” Ripley said. He added: “It’s nice if legislators were a little more across the aisle. If we had a little more of that, it wouldn’t hurt.”

Another Glendive rancher also rejected arguments over Rosendale’s claim to being a Montanan.

“When my house got burnt down a couple of years ago, Matt was the first guy who helped donate for me to rebuild it. . . . It don’t make any difference where you come from, for crying out loud,” said Steve Heinbach, a rancher and Republican state senator who plans to vote for Rosendale.

Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison, who attends church with Rosendale and is undecided in this year’s Senate race, said he was “put off” by Rosendale’s stance toward the president. Jimison said that in 2016, he voted for eight Republican candidates and nine Democrats, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“Trump is not right all the time. It might be 50 percent or 70 percent. But no president in the history of the United States ever deserves someone’s full support,” he said.

For others, including Trump voters, Rosendale’s strategy has been enough to guarantee support for his opponent.

“I voted for Trump, and I like what he’s doing, but he can go overboard” said Russ Hanke, 61, a maintenance worker. “That’s what I like about Tester. He’s not going to let someone like Trump run over him when he gets stuff wrong.”

Darlene Hanke, 65, his wife, who previously worked in food services for the hospital, agreed, referencing concerns about Rosendale’s links to the state as part of a wider critique of his strategy. Both the Hankes plan to vote for Tester; in 2016, Russ voted for Trump, and Darlene voted for Clinton, although she said she now supports the president.

Rosendale “just doesn’t seem independent,” she said. “I think he’s got too much money to worry about, and he doesn’t have interests here for us. I think Tester would be the better candidate for us.”

Tester has also come under attack over issues of independence, most recently over his decision to vote with his party and oppose the nomination to the Supreme Court of Brett M. Kavanaugh. As the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he also provoked the president’s fury by sinking his nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary in April.

Chuck Johnson, a veteran analyst who has covered Montana politics for 50 years, said he wondered if the candidates’ tactics had neutralized each other.

“Tester is relatively popular, and he’s one of the only senators with the hands of a working person. I think that counts for something here. But he has also made himself vulnerable with his actions on Kavanaugh and tax cuts. . . . At the same time, if you were picking a candidate to run for Senate, I can’t imagine Rosendale’s status as a Maryland real estate developer would be ideal,” Johnson said.

Ahead of Trump’s last visit to the state, Tester took out a full-page ad in 14 Montana newspapers thanking the president for signing 16 of his bills into law. But Zimdars, the rancher with deep roots in Glendive, dismissed these efforts. If Tester could undermine Trump on personnel appointments, he reasoned, he also could do so in policy areas such as climate change or regulations that directly affect Montanans.

“As far as agriculture, we were getting to more regulations than we could live with. . . . It wasn’t long before we couldn’t feasibly do it,” he said. “I’m undecided, but I think I’ll probably vote Rosendale. I see him representing our values. I’m worried about the environmentalists.”

He was also appalled by questions over Rosendale’s Montana identity. “If you own 60 acres and 20 cows, are you a rancher? I don’t know myself,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Tester was the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is the ranking member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.