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Sen. Jon Tester pitches his usual moderate message as he seeks reelection


U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Montana's lone Democrat holding a statewide office, is one of the Republican's top targets this year as they try to win back control of the Senate. GOP candidates have swept recent elections in the state, so Tester is campaigning as a moderate. It's an approach he hopes will win him another term despite running as a Democrat in a state where former President Donald Trump is popular. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar has more.


JON TESTER: It is good to have you all here.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: At an annual fundraiser for the Montana Democratic Party last month, Tester addressed a few hundred people gathered at the county fairgrounds with his usual ease and familiarity.


TESTER: The Democratic Party is about family. And without my family, I certainly wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing today, and I wouldn't be able to run again in 2024.

RAGAR: The senator, known for his down-home demeanor, gave a shoutout to his wife, Sharla, and their upcoming 47th wedding anniversary. He thanked their son Shon for helping out on their farm, and he talked about how it feels being a Democrat in a red state.


TESTER: The progress we make as Democrats in this state are hard fought. We have to earn it inch by inch.

RAGAR: During his 17-year tenure in the U.S. Senate, Tester has carved out an identity as a moderate. Yet Republican attack ads in this year's Senate race claim he's beholden to special interests instead of Montana voters, like this one from his top GOP challenger, Tim Sheehy.


TIM SHEEHY: Two-faced Tester runs on Montana values, but he has no problem taking dark money to spread lies across Montana.

RAGAR: In an interview with NPR, Tester brushed off criticism that money influences his politics.

TESTER: This is part of the Republican strategy that they've always had to try to make me into something I'm not so they can run against that person 'cause they can't beat the dirt farmer from Big Sandy, Mont., that looks out for rural America.

RAGAR: That identity, a dirt farmer who's a voice for rural communities, has been central to his staying power as Montana's senior senator. But when it comes to actual votes, that staying power is won by slim margins. In three federal election wins, Tester has never earned more than 51% of the vote. He tries to appeal to voters by highlighting what he sees as a record of working across the aisle.

TESTER: We're all Montanans, and I think Montanans understand that you need to work together. They understand that the division is bad, and they appreciate when they have somebody that's willing to roll up their sleeves and get things done.

RAGAR: That approach also means Big Sky voters at times hear talking points from their lone Democrat in Congress they may be more familiar hearing from GOP candidates. Just last week, Tester posted a video to social media of himself pressing Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a Senate hearing demanding he step up to fix the southern border. He also released an ad critical of President Biden's border policies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Jon Tester worked with Republicans fighting to shut down the border, target fentanyl traffickers and add hundreds of new Border Patrol agents.

RAGAR: Montana State University political scientist Jessi Bennion says Tester is facing the fight of his professional life.

JESSI BENNION: He's absolutely trying to distance himself from Washington, D.C. Democrats. That's smart. He absolutely has to do that to win here.

RAGAR: Yet voters who consider themselves progressive Democrats have also expressed their dissatisfaction. At the state party fundraiser last month, protesters gathered outside demanding Tester call for an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What do we want?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When do we want it?


RAGAR: Tester was interrupted twice by protesters during his speech at the dinner. He brushed them off saying...


TESTER: Isn't it great to be popular? Isn't it? Damn right it is.

RAGAR: Kimber Brown of Livingston, an organizer of the protest, voted for Tester in the past but has no plans to this year. They say they don't feel represented by the Democrat.

KIMBER BROWN: We won't vote. We're not going to put our name down on the ballot. We are not going to walk up to that booth at all.

RAGAR: Yet Tester is going to need a broad coalition of support to win in November. He faces a GOP opponent handpicked by the junior senator from Montana, Steve Daines, who's leading Republican efforts to win a Senate majority, and that opponent, Tim Sheehy, has Trump's endorsement. Sheehy, a veteran and multimillionaire business owner, is fully embracing Trump's brand of conservatism. Earlier this year, he laid out why he thinks this race is consequential.


SHEEHY: President Trump will win the White House, but he'll be severely limited on what he can do if he does not have a Senate to back him up.

RAGAR: With national attention on the race, money is pouring in. Tester has raised $25 million so far in his reelection campaign, according to recent FEC filings. That's five times the amount Sheehy has raised so far. Having last run for re-election in 2018, Tester's never shared a ticket with Trump, who won Montana by 16 points in 2020.

For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.