Montana Madness and a Key U.S. Senate Race for Jon Tester


No U.S. Senator has quite evoked the fury of Donald Trump as much as Montana’s Jon Tester. Sen. Tester is Montana’s lone Democratic statewide officeholder, seeking a fourth term in a “red” state with Trump likely atop the ballot.

The Republicans are gunning for Tester, having cleared the field for a multi-millionaire ex-Navy SEAL named Tim Sheehy to take out incumbent Tester. Trump endorsed Sheehan just as U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, one of the right-wing crazies who toppled House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, was poised to make the race. Exit Rosendale.

Just one problem: Montanans like Tester, a crewcut farmer from Choteau County who began his public service on the Big Sandy School Board. He has three narrow wins, beginning with the upset of GOP Sen. Conrad Burns.

Tester’s last victory, in 2018, came in the face of Trump’s wrath. The 45th president made four trips to the Big Sky State to boost Rosendale, that year’s challenger. Donald Trump, Jr., took to the road denouncing Tester.

The Senator had blocked Trump’s nomination of White House doctor Ronny Jackson as U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General General had raised unsettling questions about Doc Jackson. There was alcohol consumption on foreign trips, a “screaming and yelling” episode within presidential earshot, and a charge that Jackson “made sexual and derogatory statements about one of his female subordinates in Manila.” Jackson was (and is), however, a Trump yes-man. Now a Texas congressman, he ceaselessly celebrates the 45th president in capitalized posts on X, the forum formerly known as Twitter.

Trump staged a big pre-election 2018 rally in Billings. But the advance staff made a mistake: They picked out and put a West Billings High School student named Tyler Linfesty in the cheering section behind “the Donald.” Linfesty rolled his eyes at the lies and laughed at Trump misstatements.

The “plaid shirt guy” was removed in mid-speech, replaced by a Trump shill, and told by the Secret Service to go home. He had, however, upstaged Trump. Linfesty enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and has since graduated from the University of Michigan. Tester beat Rosendale by about 16,000 votes, topping 50 percent of the vote for the first time. He was boosted by young voters, Montana’s Native American vote, and women.

Tester is a Democratic moderate. He backed the Keystone Pipeline, opposed doing background checks of those purchasing firearms at gun shows, and is pro-hunter. A reporter visiting Miles City saw Tester field a high school student’s question about wolves repopulating his state. “I think we should start hunting them again,” he replied.

Yet, Tester evinced some of the old-time populism of Montana politics. He is a native Montanan, in contrast to such interlopers as the Minnesota-raised Sheey and San Diego-born Gov. Greg Gianforte. He farms land owned by his family since 1916.

Tester chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and is a senior member (under chair Patty Murray) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and its environmental and energy subcommittees. He can still be found atop a tractor. Aides joke that equipment on Tester’s farm dates from before Sheehy moved to the state.

Sheehy is a Naval Academy graduate, trained as an Army Ranger, and is a Bronze Star-decorated veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.  He left the service in 2014, settled in Bozeman, and launched a highly successful firm called Bridger Aerospace. The company specializes in deploying advanced technology to fight wildfires. The bulk of its business is with government agencies. The Montana Free Press has estimated Sheehy’s wealth at between $74 million and $200 million.

Sheehy has cut a figure in the state, as a big giver to Republican candidates and through philanthropic endeavors. He owns luxury properties at Big Sky and Flathead Lake and has entered the ranching business. He was recruited to run for Senate by Tester’s GOP seatmate Sen. Steve Daines, who is chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Relations between the two senators are understandably strained.

The Republicans need to flip just two seats to recapture the Senate. One pickup is near certain in West Virginia where Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is retiring.

The Los Angeles-born Daines has cultivated and endorsed Trump, bringing Sheehy together with the 45th President. He has lately recruited another star Senate candidate in former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

Trump has yet to demonstrate coattails in the West. Targeted Democratic senators won reelection two years ago in Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. In this state, Patty Murray withstood a $20 million advertising blitz to win in a walk.

The Republicans running the Montana Legislature have taken aim at Tester’s constituencies. They’ve passed legislation refusing to recognize college identification as voter ID. They’ve tried to outlaw vote harvesting, popular in sparsely populated Native American reservations. Republicans dollars have been deployed to put Green Party candidates on the ballot, to drain votes from the Democrats.

The Seattle (and D.C.) based Perkins Coie law firm has successfully challenged a succession of voter suppression measures. Tester makes frequent fundraising forays to the Puget Sound region. He has held events at Strategies 360 offices on Lake Union, representing himself as a very different Democrat from the far-left D’s of Washington’s 36th legislative district.

Late-arriving votes from Silver Bow County (Butte) gave Tester a win in 2006, and Democrats control of the Senate. The D’s desperately need a repeat in 2024. Can the home state guy beat the interlopers?

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Checking facts on Senator Tester’s opponent, Tim Sheehy — referred to first as “Sheehan” and elsewhere in Joel’s article as “Sheey” and, correctly as “Sheehy” — his resume’ makes him sound like an attractive vote-getter for the Montana Republicans, though the NBC Montana bio I read gives little insight into his political views.

    His background makes him sound like a traditional conservative , free-enterprise “R”, but his campaign website (adorned with a photo taken with DJT, both men giving a thumbs-up to the camera) includes a lot of Republican campaign boilerplate about how terrible Biden and those dastardly liberals in DC are, served up with a side helping of Trumpian “everything is broken, terrible and I am the kind of guy to fix-it” balderdash.

    Tester can run on his local-guy name recognition and his record, which seems to suit most native Montanans, but he can’t run away from the “D” next to his name. I wonder how the Republicans’ “border crisis” talking point plays in an agricultural state like Montana. Presumably the ag sector would benefit from having immigrants willing and eager to provide the work needed by farmers and ranchers.

    As far as presidential voting preferences are concerned, Montanas usually vote Republican: the last Democrat to win a majority of Montanans’ votes and the presidency in a two-party race was LBJ in 1964 (Ross Perot split off a lot of George H.W. Bush’s votes, taking 26% total. Bill Clinton won Montana with about 38%, beating Bush by about 10,000 votes).

  2. Tester is about one-sixth populist farmer. One year out of six, when he’s running for office, he digs out his Carhartts and shows up around the state and on TV. The other five of six he is a Dem Party yes-man voting as Shumer tells him to vote for the progressive-socialist policies that have done so much damage to our safety. His campaign is funded and orchestrated by dark money shot callers. Might have been his own man years ago but not anymore.

  3. Yes! Tester and his wife ignore the 1,800 acres except for election time. The rest of the time they collect political donations from all thise fellow organic farmers while growing organic alfalfa, organic safflower, organic barley, etc. (You know those organic farmers.)

    Yes! Shumer and dark money call all the shots except for that 30% when he voted Drumpfh’s way.

    Finally, he is a trumpet player, which probably clearly maybe means he’s a true socialist (playing in an ensemble means everybody plays at the same time).Or not.

  4. If all the serious commentary is done … What is he doing, in the photo? Looks like an oxyacetalene torch, but from my brief experience there should be a big overexposed white glare where there’s some yellow sparks coming out, and he should be suffering rapid permanent retina damage.


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