Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s announcement Thursday that he would run for re-election is likely a relief for Democrats who are trying to hold onto the Republican-leaning state next year as they face a challenging Senate map.
Tester will bring typical incumbent advantages to the race, with higher name recognition, an established fundraising operation and a record of winning tough races.
His announcement is also welcome news for Democrats since he has been able to carry more counties and win the state by wider margins than some other Democrats who have run for president, Senate or governor in recent election cycles.
Except for 2008, when Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer both sailed to re-election, Democrats have recently struggled to win statewide races in Montana, especially at the presidential level.
Tester was first elected in 2006, defeating GOP Sen. Conrad Burns by 1 percentage point, winning nearly 49% of the vote. And he’s widened his margin of victory since then.
In 2012, Tester won a second term by nearly 4 percentage points, significantly outperforming former President Barack Obama, who lost the state by 14 points.
In 2018, Tester again won re-election by nearly 4 percentage points, winning just over 50% of the vote, a slightly higher share than his past races. Two years later, Democrats running for president, governor and Senate lost the state by double digits. In 2020, former Gov. Steve Bullock lost his run for Senate by 10 points, winning 45% of the vote.
Tester has also been able to carry more counties than his fellow Democrats' in recent election cycles. In 2012, he won 16 counties — twice as many as Obama. And in 2018 Tester won 13 counties, while two years later Bullock and the Democratic nominee for governor carried nine and President Joe Biden won seven.
Democrats running for Senate, president and governor have consistently carried the same five counties going back to Tester’s first race in 2006: Deer Lodge, Silver Bow, Big Horn, Missoula and Glacier. But Tester has been able to run up the score in those areas, carrying those five counties by wider margins than some other presidential, Senate or gubernatorial candidates in recent election cycles, while also losing other counties by smaller margins.
Of course, Tester’s past victories do not mean that he will coast to re-election next year. He is a top target for Republicans, and he will once again be on the same ballot as his party’s presidential nominee. Although Tester was able to outrun Obama in 2012, it remains an open question as to whether he can do so again — and by a large enough margin — in today’s hyperpolarized environment.