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Republicans cheer Trump as attacker-in-chief — but will it work in Montana?

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) arrives for voting at the Capitol in January. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — President Trump’s unrelenting attacks on this state’s Democratic senator have landed with a boom, drawing the attention of voters and those fighting to keep GOP control of the Senate.

Trump’s fierce criticism — calling Sen. Jon Tester “dishonest and sick,” saying he knows things about the senator that would make him unelectable — has jolted Republicans to life in a race that has long been seen as just out of their reach. GOP groups are running advertisements parroting Trump’s complaints, and candidates echo him on the trail. A top donor is giving the race a closer look.

But it’s unclear whether that will be the potent weapon Republican strategists are hoping for, even in a state Trump won by more than 20 points.

“Trump gets mad about a lot of things,” said Kristi Sewell, of Butte, who has voted for Tester and Trump. “I like them both. They both have their faults.”

In his 2016 campaign, Trump showed a talent for finding barbs that resonated with voters — “Low Energy Jeb,” “Lil’ Marco,” “Crooked Hillary.” This year, Republicans want him to embrace a role of attacker-in-chief, knocking down Democratic Senate candidates in red states as they defend their fragile 51-49 majority.

So when Tester infuriated Trump last month by derailing the nomination of Ronny L. Jackson to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, Trump seized the moment to begin hurling the attacks, and Montana became a testing ground for whether the president’s knack for the political insult would work when his name is not on the ballot.

“Trump speaks what we think,” said Paul Nelson, a Republican from Missoula who was at a major Great Falls attraction — a tiki lounge with women dressed as mermaids swimming in a giant water tank. When Trump goes after someone, he knows how to “just push the button,” he added with a satisfied chuckle.

Nelson, 50, called Tester’s release of allegations against VA nominee Ronny L. Jackson “unconscionable.” He accused Tester of being an overly partisan Democrat who “wanted a scalp.”

But the president’s incursion has not only energized conservative voters to engage with the Senate race — it has also spurred enthusiasm among liberal voters who despise the president and support Tester, who has cultivated a relatable, populist image.

“Our guy can take out a transmission on a John Deere tractor, okay?” said Tester supporter Geoff Gallus, 51, as he sat at the bar at the Silver Dollar Saloon here in Butte. “That’s meaningful.”

Also in Butte, an old mining town and Democratic stronghold, Marine Corps veteran Tom Barsanti, a Democrat, felt strongly that Tester has done a good job with the VA nomination. He believed that Trump barraging Tester was all wrong for Montana and could backfire.

“Keep the federal government out of your state,” said Barsanti, 59, summarizing his sense of Montana’s libertarian attitude toward Washington. “And the federal government, who’s the president, has just interjected into your state.”

Tester is the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and became the public face of a deep dive into Jackson’s tenure as White House physician. Jackson withdrew after Tester’s team put out accusations of professional misconduct, including a car crash for which the White House said there was no evidence. Trump was furious.

The president has said Tester should “lose” his race and even called on him to resign. Tester, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has completely avoided criticizing Trump in return.

“I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do, and the president is going to do what he’s going to do,” Tester told the Montana Standard. “I’m not worried about it.”

Some Republican strategists believe that Trump is more effective on offense against Democrats than he is defending downballot GOP candidates. The president campaigned for Republican candidates in Alabama and Pennsylvania in recent special elections, only to see them lose.

Without Trump on the ballot this year, GOP officials are looking for ways to get his loyal base to turn out. If they can portray Democrats as enemies of Trump’s agenda, they believe, they may be able to motivate voters who might otherwise sit out the midterms to show up in November.

“From the beginning of the primary in 2016 to today, nearly every person, let alone lawmakers, that he has engaged has taken a significant hit to their image,” said Josh Holmes, a top adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “And I have yet to see one rebound.”

President Trump sharply criticized Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) after the release of damning allegations that led White House doctor Ronny L. Jackson to end his bid to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sandy Streib of Boulder didn’t vote for Trump, and she’s still undecided about whether she will support Tester in November. Trump’s attacks have drawn her attention to the Senate race, she said as she walked her dog down Main Street, past people fixing equipment outside the town’s hardware store.

“I don’t like it at all. It’s changed the political atmosphere for the United States,” said Streib, soon to be 59, speaking of Trump’s tendency to try to aggressively attack people who have crossed him.

Down the block at the grocery store, Josh Morris, another undecided voter, said he puts no stock into what Trump says.

“Most of the stuff he says is in one ear and out the other anyway,” said Morris, 42, who didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton. “The petty stuff he comes up with, it’s just like a 3-year-old out there.”

The president has expanded his attacks beyond the scuttled Jackson nomination in recent days, portraying Tester as soft on illegal immigration. Republican groups and Senate candidates are trying to amplify his words.

But Tester may be tricky to brand, as he has already established one here. He still works on his family farm, sports a flat-top haircut and isn’t bashful about telling the story of how he lost three fingers in a meat grinder as a child.

He’s campaigning for a third term on a platform that stands out from the other Democratic senators running in states Trump won easily. The Montanan voted against confirming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and rejected a bill to end a three-day government shutdown earlier this year, even as he has run an ad touting the bills he has pushed that Trump signed. He regularly discusses his support for veterans in this state, where nearly 1 in 10 residents is a veteran.

Tester’s populist image, as well as Trump’s, resonates in this state, according to Bill Strizich, the Democratic Party chairman in Cascade County, which contains Great Falls. Montana has a history of family-owned farms and unions that has fostered an independence and skepticism about outside influences. Attacks may not move voters here, he said.

“I really don’t think that you’re going to see any disaffection from the Democratic side. I think this does solidify the right-wing Republican support,” Strizich said.

With Trump taking an interest in the race, the Republican Party feels like it is catching a break in Montana for the first time this campaign cycle. Tester’s seat had been slipping away from them, thanks in part to some self-inflicted wounds.

Trump tapped Ryan Zinke to be his interior secretary, even though many Republicans saw him as the best recruit to take on Tester. Now, the Republican field lacks a clear front-runner and includes candidates with out-of-state ties.

But a top Republican donor on the sidelines of the race says the attacks have made him consider investing money here.

“This race was not on my radar, but I am now paying attention and will probably contribute to the Republican nominee,” said Dan Eberhart, a wealthy oil industry executive and GOP fundraiser with business ties in the state who is putting money behind Republican Senate candidates in Florida, Missouri and North Dakota, among others.

White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short said that he expects Trump will travel to Montana “before the fall.” But other Republicans are more skeptical about his commitment to the state.

“If this was October 16, yeah I’d be a happy camper,” said Joe Dooling, chairman of the Republican Party in Lewis and Clark County, home to the state capital of Helena. “By the time October comes around, there’ll be a new issue.”

For now at least, Trump’s criticisms of Tester appear to be rubbing off on GOP-friendly voters like Jon Combs, 46 a truck driver who voted for Trump and is no fan of Tester or his navigation of Jackson’s nomination.

“I think if you’re going to be in that position and if you’re going to run your mouth about somebody, you better have the facts,” Combs said.

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