BIG SANDY, Mont. — As Republicans set their sights on recapturing control of the Senate next year, there may be no bigger prize, both figuratively and literally, than Montana.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is seeking a fourth term in a state where former President Donald Trump won by more than 16 percentage points in 2020 and where Republican Sen. Steve Daines defeated the once-popular Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock by 10 points the same year.
Tester has already ramped up his re-election bid by adding staffers across Montana and raising millions of dollars. While Democrats hope Tester's deep connection to his home state will overcome his party affiliation, Republicans have yet to settle on a candidate to challenge him, and there is the possibility of a messy primary.
Tester, 66, hasn’t said whether this will be his last Senate campaign. And while he opposes term limits, he’s aware of how age has affected his fellow senators. Asked about the recent health issues of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Tester said: “I think it needs to be addressed by the voters.
“I mean, look, the last thing I want to have happen is stay there too long,” Tester said. “I’ve watched it happen too many times in my time in the Senate, and it’s a pitiful thing to watch, where really good people, both sides of the aisle, really, really good people, have stellar careers in public service, really deteriorate to the point where they’re just a shell of what they formerly were. But the voters know that; the voters know that. They can see what I can see.”
Asked whether he had concerns about President Joe Biden’s age, Tester said he believed Biden, 80, is “absolutely 100% with it.”
“He’s doing a good job. I think folks are making a bigger deal out of it than it is,” Tester said. “But, you know, we’ll see what I’m like at 82. I doubt I’ll be running for president.”
Senate Republicans, including Daines, who's chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have rallied around businessman Tim Sheehy to take on Tester next year. Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL born in Minnesota, is already running TV ads in the state hoping to coalesce GOP support to unseat Tester. But Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, who narrowly lost a challenge to Tester in 2018, hasn’t ruled out a potential rematch, and he appears unfazed by the efforts of his fellow Republicans to clear the field for Sheehy.
“Rep. Rosendale has not made a decision yet and is focused on his priority which is representing the people of Montana,” Aashka Varma, a spokesperson for Rosendale’s campaign, said in a statement. “One thing is for sure, Sen. Tester does not represent Montana, and Montana voters will make their decision over the next few months over who will replace him, not Mitch McConnell and the DC cartel.”
Varma went on to cite a Public Policy Polling survey from June showing Rosendale with a 54-point lead in a primary candidate preference question over Sheehy, who isn’t as well-known statewide, and a February poll that gave him a 5-point lead over Tester.
"Rep. Rosendale is the clear choice among Montana voters. He has their overwhelming trust and support should he decide to run," Varma said.
Rosendale’s fellow Republicans aren’t so sure. Daines has made it clear he wants Sheehy to take on Tester and Rosendale to run for re-election in the House.
“I really like Matt Rosendale, which is why I am encouraging him to build seniority for the great state of Montana in the House and help Republicans hold their majority,” Daines said in a statement.
Eugene Graf, a land developer from Bozeman and a previous Republican candidate for Congress in Montana, has backed Sheehy for the GOP nomination and says he fears Rosendale’s entering the race could create an expensive “house of cards” for the Republican Party in Montana.
“I think Matt, since his last run for the Senate, has wanted to run for the Senate again,” Graf said. “I think he wants to do the job for Montana in that Senate role, and I don’t think that he would do a bad job. But I think you got to pull back and look at it from the larger view of what’s best for the party, what might be best for the state.”
Tester seems unbothered by the Republican jockeying and is instead leaning on his deep ties to Montana, where he still runs a dirt farm that has been in his family for generations.
“The fact that I was born in Montana and live within 100 miles of where I was born my entire life, that’s a pretty good start, too,” Tester said in an interview on his farm in Big Sandy. “So it’s about talking about what Montana is and what Montana stands for.”
Tester has highlighted his long-standing ties to the state as a strength, drawing an implicit contrast with Sheehy, who was born in Minnesota, and Maryland-born Rosendale.
“I will tell you that I think I have an inherent advantage having lived here my whole life,” Tester said.
Tester has cultivated a profile as a moderate Democrat, willing to work with Republicans and criticize his own party. Asked about the recent indictments of former President Donald Trump and Hunter Biden, Tester said that both are innocent until proven guilty but that "if you commit a crime, you pay a price for that."
Pressed about whether he buys Republicans' argument that President Biden played a role in his son's alleged wrongdoing, Tester said: "That’s for somebody else to figure out. But if there’s even, if that connection is there, then that’s a problem."
Republicans in Montana argue that Tester's voting record has fallen out of line with the views of the state’s population over time.
“I mean, there’s a reason he’s been elected multiple times. I’m ready for a change. But it’s not going to be easy,” said Republican state Sen. Kenneth Bogner, who hasn’t ruled out a run for Rosendale’s House seat should he tun for the Senate.
Bogner said that he believes Tester knows how to campaign in the state but that Republicans will make an effort to demonstrate where Tester stands on big, partisan issues that voters care about.
“I’d like to see more conservative policies that are supported from both of our senators,” he said. “I really like what Sen. Daines is doing on what he supports, more conservative policies. Tester seems to be more left-wing.”
Tester is avoiding a direct back and forth over his record, instead focusing on the job at hand and aiming for a strong finish when the time comes.
“The election day is what, 15, 16 months away?” he asked. “That’s plenty long enough. We can boil this back to really get serious about this after we find out who my opponent is, if they have a primary. Then we can rock and roll for the last four, five, six months of next year. In the meantime, there’s too much important stuff to get done here in this country.”
CORRECTION (August 21, 2023, 12:05 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated where Tim Sheehy was born. He was born in Minnesota, not Montana.