Ensuring capable stewardship of the sprawling Veterans Affairs is an issue certain to resonate with Tester’s constituents; nearly 1 in 10 Montana residents is a veteran. Only Alaska has a higher percentage of veterans living in-state.
At the same time, Tester’s aggressive scrutiny could derail the president’s pick and draw the wrath of Trump as Tester seeks reelection. Trump remains popular in Montana, where he won by more than 20 percentage points in 2016. National Republicans consider the race a top target in November and are already castigating Tester for previously crossing the president on his top priorities.
“I’m frankly a little surprised at how emboldened he has felt,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the second-ranking Republican senator. Cornyn added: “He apparently isn’t too worried about the election.”
On Capitol Hill this week, Tester has been the prominent voice describing the allegations against Jackson, becoming a magnet for attention as he races between votes, meetings and media interviews.
“I think we need to get to the bottom of it,” Tester said on MSNBC on Wednesday. “I think there’s a possibility he could be confirmable.”
Among Democrats running in the most Trump-friendly states, Tester is a walking contradiction, running ads back home highlighting his legislation that won Trump’s approval while often standing with the resistance in defying the president in Washington.
After other endangered Democrats pledged to vote for Trump’s secretary of state nominee, Tester came out against Mike Pompeo. When 81 senators voted for a bill Trump would later sign to end a three-day government shutdown, Tester voted no.
Many Democrats believe Tester has some of the keenest political instincts in the party. While Trump won Montana running away, the state has unique political contours compared with his other strongholds. It has a Democratic governor. And it has shown flashes of a populist streak and a libertarian attitude toward the federal government.
“I think [Tester’s] more in touch with working folks and farmers than most of us,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Democratic senator on the veterans committee. He later added, “Jon has his ear to the ground.”
Tester was front and center Wednesday as the Democratic staff on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee released an explosive list of allegations, including that Jackson, who is the White House physician, wrecked a government vehicle after getting drunk at a Secret Service going-away party. The allegations were included in a two-page summary of interviews conducted by the staff.
Tester’s persona is as distinctive as his political strategy. He still works on his family farm. He’s never shy about telling the story of how he lost three fingers as a child in a meat-grinding accident. With a large frame and a close-cropped flat-top haircut, he has the air of a 1950s football player. He can be blunt, yet also inclined to banter.
“Oh, no, no no,” Tester said this week in jest when a Washington Post reporter asked to talk about his campaign. He quickly added: “Yes, go ahead.”
One of 10 Democratic senators running in states Trump claimed in 2016, part of Tester’s campaign has been about touting the areas where he has common ground with the president. In his first reelection ad, Tester highlights 13 bills he pushed that Trump has signed.
When he gets to the eighth, he holds up his hands for the camera and declares, “I’m out of fingers! But I’m not finished getting things done for Montana.”
But this week, Tester announced his intention to vote against Pompeo, citing concerns about the CIA director’s record on protecting privacy and what he saw as a too-hawkish approach to war.
“Secretary of state’s job is to try to negotiate peace,” Tester said. “And I’m not sure that’s his first option.”
That put Tester on the opposite side of three other Democrats running in ruby-red states: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.). Each said they would vote for Pompeo.
Earlier this year, Tester was the only Democratic senator in a state Trump won to vote against a stopgap spending bill to end a three-day government shutdown. While many Democrats opposed the measure over what they saw as a lack of protection for young, undocumented immigrants, Tester had a different rationale.
He said a two-and-a-half week budget wasn’t “an acceptable way to run a government” and that the plan didn’t help rural health clinics and boost border security like he wanted.
Republicans, who are defending a narrow 51-49 Senate majority in the midterms, are trying to make Tester pay a political price for that vote.
“Jon and I have very different voting records,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). “Virtually every vote of major consequence, we’ve been on different sides of the issue.”
Guy Cecil, the head of the Democratic group Priorities USA, recalled in an interview that when he was chief of staff to Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), he would set up dinners with Bennet and Tester at the Tune Inn restaurant and bar in Washington to help get his boss prepared for a tough campaign. When Cecil ran the Senate Democratic campaign arm, he often turned to Tester to talk to recruits.
“He understands the most important thing Democrats can do — or any candidate — is be authentic,” said Cecil.
Luck has indisputably been a factor in Tester’s political survival. His 2012 Republican opponent was a disappointment to GOP leaders. And last year, Trump plucked Tester’s top potential challenger, Ryan Zinke, to be secretary of the Interior, to the chagrin of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Tester will learn who his Republican opponent will be after Montana’s June 5 primary. The four-candidate field includes state Auditor Matt Rosendale and businessman Troy Downing. Tester is not handicapping the GOP competition.
“Rumors are like rumors,” he said. “I mean, I think any of the four could win.”
Tester said his campaign is “about telling people what we’ve accomplished and continuing to work for the state of Montana.”
Republicans believe they have a simpler story to tell.
“Trump won Montana by 21 points,” Daines said.