No Rest From Politics, Montana U.S. Senate Race Off To A Fast Start

Jun 8, 2018

U.S. Senator Jon Tester greets Clara and George Bentler at his campaign office in Billings.
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

Voters who were hoping to get a break from politics now that the Montana primary ended this week may be disappointed to learn Tuesday's balloting was actually the “starting gun” for the November general election.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester, who was unopposed in the primary, kicked his re-election campaign into high gear, starting in Billings.

Tester already had a full day when he stepped into his campaign office this afternoon, to the sounds of applause.

“No. No. No,” he said waving off the applause. “How’s everybody doing?”

“Great,” came the reply.

Tester quipped, “Are you in here because you really want to go to work or it’s too damn hot outside?”

He then walked among the rows of chairs shaking hands with everyone who showed up.  Afterwards, he stood in the front of what was once a business called Stuarts House of Vacuums and asked those gathered to help with knocking on doors with literature, making phone calls and helping out in other ways.

“It’s kinda a pain in the neck,” he said. “But once you do it for a little bit it’s fun too. Appreciate it. This is how we’re going to win Billings. Truthfully.”

In his past 2 statewide elections, Tester, a former legislator and Montana Senate President, has been competitive here.

In 2006, Tester upset incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Conrad Burns. He was only behind the former Yellowstone County Commissioner and former statewide agricultural broadcaster by 1, 136 votes.

Six years later, Tester eked out a win here by a mere 488 votes, defeating former Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg, a Billings native.

An estimated 1 in 7 voters is in Yellowstone County.

Traditionally, the U.S. Senate takes a recess in August to escape the muggy heat. It also gives lawmakers time to return home to campaign. Not this year. The Republican Senate Majority leader said members will work through August this year.

Some pundits had suggested the move will hurt Democrats they see as vulnerable, this includes Tester.

"I think this election is going to be just as tough of any election as any other election," he said. "I’m going to treat it like that and we’re going to double down and work as hard as I possibly can until the finish line comes."

The farmer from Big Sandy, who had used the August break to also harvest his crop, praised the move saying there’s a lot of work to get done in Congress.

That’s why he’s turning to others to help with the so-called “ground game.” Groups like veterans, students, women and teachers.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka

“I should tell you is why I didn’t stay in teaching,” he said during a lunchtime gathering with about 3 dozen teachers at the union office in Billings. “This is really a crime. We had a butcher shop on the farm. I could make more money on a Saturdays cutting up meat then I could in a week of teaching. And that’s just not right.”

He said he will continue to work to preserve and adequately fund public education.

That message pleased Scott McCulloch who’s been with the union formerly known as the Billings Education Association for nearly two decades. The union recently voted to merge with another union and was renamed the Montana Federation of Public Employees.

Tester posed for "selfies" with educators during a lunch gathering in Billings.
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

McCulloch said there’s a lot of diversity in political views among the union’s combined memberships now estimated at 25,000 people.

“And we endorsed Democrats and Republicans. Again we look for people who are right on our issues,” he said.

McCulloch said the union also wants to meet with Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale, the current state Auditor and former legislator from Glendive.

Voters selected Rosendale Tuesday night over Russ Fagg, Troy Downing and Al Olszewki in the Republican primary.

Tester got off to a fast start in his campaign. Lobbing a television ad against Rosendale the day after the election and launched his “Weekend of Action” this coming weekend.