Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, has spent two decades representing a state of glorious mountains and grasslands. Now opponents are plotting to make the farmer-lawmaker face what’s called a “jungle primary.”
Tester is running for reelection next year. He’s the Big Sky’s only statewide Democratic officeholder in an increasingly “red” Republican state. That means he is a prime target in the GOP’s bid to retake control of the Senate. He is also an avuncular, well-liked politician. He has raised $5 million in the first quarter of 2023, a chunk of it from a recent Puget Sound fundraiser.
How to lengthen odds of his reelection? The Republican-run Montana Senate recently passed a unique election law. It would create a one-time-only, one-race-only blanket primary. The election would throw all Senate hopefuls onto the primary ballot, with the two survivors facing off in November. It’s a system already adopted by Washington, California and Alaska.
The Republican and Democratic parties have fought blanket primaries, particularly in this state. Why, then, is the GOP boosting it in Montana? “Let’s just call this bill what it is: It’s nothing but a partisan power grab,” in words of Democratic State Sen. Ryan Lynch.
Its objective is to keep the Libertarian Party off the ballot, a party that has been blamed for draining votes from Tester challengers. Two of Tester’s three election wins have come with fewer than 50 percent of statewide votes, and they featured a Libertarian on the ballot. Of course, supporters deny this nefarious intent. “I’m not attacking Sen. Tester . . . I just want to make sure the individual that is the winning candidate gets the majority vote,” explained GOP Sen. Greg Hertz, chief sponsor of the legislation.
The jungle primary would sunset after the 2024 U.S. Senate election. Hertz describes it as a “test run” for adoption in other races. To which Gary Buchanan, an independent candidate for Congress last year, has replied: “It’s not an experiment: It’s a purposeful infringement on the electoral process. I think it’s an attempt to disenfranchise anyone that wanted to be part of the Libertarian Party and I think that is a big mistake.”
Only five of the 50 states still have a U.S. senator from each party. In 2020, Tester encouraged then-Gov. Steve Bullock to take on his seatmate GOP Sen. Steve Daines. Bullock lost to Daines. Now, Sen. Daines is chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and committed to unseating Tester. When Tester announced he would run again, Daines declared that his Democratic colleague and Bullock “should have ended their political careers on their terms. Instead, they each will have their careers ended by Montana voters.”
The GOP-controlled Montana Legislature has already sought to discourage the Democratic vote. It passed a bill eliminating same-day registration, and another saying student ID alone is not enough to register. It also outlawed third-party ballot collection, used to collect Native American ballots in rural locales far from a voting place.
The Democrats went to court and successfully challenged these laws, with formidable help from the Seattle-based Perkins Coie law firm. Perkins Coie has already stepped in to block shell Green Party candidates masterminded behind the scenes by Republicans. Their goal, cutting into the Democratic vote.
The state’s GOP lawmakers are trying other gambits. They would ratchet up signature requirements for an independent or minor party candidate to get on the ballot. They’re also moving against environmental lawsuits. A pending bill would require plaintiffs to pay costs of compiling materials for court, and post bond for any financial losses incurred by a developer while a lawsuit against his/her project is heard.
Montana has a populist streak, and a record of electing standout members of Congress. In the House, Rep. Jeanette Rankin was the only member to vote against U.S. entrance into both world wars. A mild-minded former professor, Mike Mansfield, served as Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Lee Metcalf championed protection of wilderness. A conservative Democrat, Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, mobilized opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s effort to pack the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tester does not yet have a challenger. Prospects include U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, his 2018 foe – heavily backed by President Trump – or Rep. Ryan Zinke, who was U.S. Interior Secretary under Trump, until driven from office amidst controversy over political travels at public expense. A prominent businessman, Tim Sheehy, is also a possible candidate.
Montana is sure to get a clear choice next year. Daines has hit Tester, saying: “He supports everything the Biden Administration has tried to do, and I fought against that: massive spending bills, tax increases, judges. Across the board, so there is a clear contrast.” The two Montanans recently squared off against a top Interior Department confirmation.
As for Tester, he points to the 7,600 contributors already backing his reelection, with 95 percent of donations being less than $100. Tester’s reelection announcement stressed his independence, saying: “This grassroots effort, that spans every corner of the state – from Miles City to Dillon – is what this campaign is about, defending Montana values.”