Trump takes the fight to Montana Sen. Jon Tester, but the red-state Democrat keeps shrugging it off

  • Amid a wave of attacks from President Donald Trump, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has not gone as far as some of his colleagues to support the president's agenda.
  • Tester is running for re-election in Montana, a state Trump won by more than 20 points in 2016.
  • As Trump heads to Montana for a campaign rally, Tester took out newspaper ads highlighting the bills he sponsored or co-sponsored that the president signed.
  • Trump aims to boost Republican Montana Auditor Matt Rosendale, who hopes to take down Tester in one of 2018's most important Senate races.
Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, questions Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, bottom right, during a Senate Banking Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. 
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, questions Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, bottom right, during a Senate Banking Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. 

President Donald Trump heads to Montana on Thursday to jab at Sen. Jon Tester in his own backyard. But the Democratic senator appears unfazed as control of the Senate and the fate of the president's policy goals hang in the balance.

Republicans have made Tester's seat a high-priority target in this year's midterm elections as they try to keep or expand their 51 seat to 49 seat majority in the Senate. The party has good reason to go after him: Trump triumphed in Montana in 2016, carrying the state by more than 20 points.

The president is traveling around the country this summer to raucous, incendiary campaign rallies, aiming to boost Republicans and damage Democrats running in competitive Senate races. After going to North Dakota last week to aid GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer in his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Trump hopes to help Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale in his effort to beat Tester.

Trump has attacked Tester with more venom than he has used in criticizing other Senate Democrats. He even called on Tester to resign after the Democrat raised public concerns about allegations made against White House physician Ronny Jackson, who later withdrew from consideration to be secretary of Veterans Affairs. The Defense Department's inspector general is currently investigating allegations that Jackson, a Navy rear admiral, oversaw a hostile work environment, drank on the job or allowed the overprescription of drugs. Jackson has denied the allegations.

Yet while he has faced an onslaught, Tester has made little effort to appease a president whose popularity has appeared to dip in Montana since the resounding 2016 win. The Democrat has shown less deference to Trump than most of his red-state Democratic counterparts, suggesting he is not sweating the re-election fight.

Ahead of the president's stop in Great Falls, Montana, Tester tried to pre-empt Trump's attacks, which will likely cast the senator as a liberal obstructionist who hamstrings the president's immigration and economic agendas.

“We’re glad President Trump is finally coming to Montana, after Jon has invited the Administration several times to Montana to discuss topics important to Montanans," said Chris Meagher, a spokesman for Tester's campaign. “Unfortunately, it looks like this will turn out to be a partisan attack, rather than a real opportunity to discuss real issues facing Montanans – like better infrastructure, schools, holding the VA accountable, or the Farm Bill."

The senator took out tongue-in-cheek newspaper ads Thursday throughout the state thanking Trump for signing 16 bills that he sponsored or co-sponsored.

"Welcome to Montana, and thank you President Trump for supporting Jon's legislation to help veterans and first responders, hold the VA accountable, and get rid of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government," the ad reads.

As the newspaper ad reflects, the Montana senator has certainly not been one of the liberal stalwarts in opposition to Trump, and has seemed careful about when to publicly criticize the president. He has voted with Trump's priorities more often than most of his Democratic colleagues.

But Tester's behavior reflects a view that he does not fear the competitive challenge from Rosendale in one of the pivotal races to determine Senate control for the next two years. The stakes are huge: the Senate makeup could determine whether Trump confirms another young, conservative justice to the Supreme Court, or whether the GOP can pursue the president's immigration and health-care policies next year.

A popular Democrat in a GOP state

Tester, a physically imposing figure who grew up on a family farm and lost three fingers in a meat grinder accident, enjoys a healthy approval rating in Montana despite his party affiliation. Fifty-six percent of registered voters in the state approve of the job he is doing, versus 33 percent who disapprove, according to a Morning Consult survey in April.

A rise in Tester's popularity with Montana voters came as Trump's standing in the state slid, according to separate Morning Consult polling. The president had 50 percent approval in the state in May, versus 47 percent disapproval. His approval rating fell from 56 percent in January 2017, according to the survey.

Those factors, combined with the perception that the GOP lost its best recruit for the seat when Ryan Zinke joined the Trump administration as Interior secretary, have contributed to nonpartisan election analysis sites pinning Tester as the favorite. Cook Political Report, Sabato's Crystal Ball and Inside Elections all list the race as leaning in Tester's favor, despite Montana's red tilt.

Tester held a 51 percent to 44 percent edge over Rosendale in June, according to a Gravis Marketing survey. The Rosendale campaign did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

The two-term senator's votes suggest a relative lack of fear about his re-election bid. Tester has voted with Trump's priorities about 37 percent of the time, less often than five colleagues considered the most endangered Democrats up for re-election this year: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Bill Nelson of Florida, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Tester opposed the confirmation of recent Trump nominees CIA Director Gina Haspel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. He voted against Justice Neil Gorsuch's confirmation to the Supreme Court last year. In February, Tester opposed a Trump-backed immigration proposal and a bill that would have withheld federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities.

The senator's immigration stance in particular has drawn Trump's ire. In April, he tweeted that "Democrats like Jon Tester continue to support the open borders agenda." The president argued that "we need lawmakers who put America First."

The campaign arm of Senate Republicans has attempted to lump Tester in with blue-state Democrats who oppose Trump's priorities. In a statement, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Calvin Moore called the senator's Thursday ad "phony" and said Trump will hold Tester "accountable for constantly standing with radical leftists like Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer to 'resist' any and all progress this administration is making in Washington."

Tester is certainly not Warren or Schumer, the Massachusetts and New York Democrats who have voted with Trump's priorities about 10 and 24 percent of time, respectively, according to FiveThirtyEight. For example, Tester joined Republicans in April in supporting a bill that would roll back some bank regulations. Warren was perhaps the fiercest Senate critic of the measure, while Schumer voted against it.

Tester seemed prepared for a Trump barrage as he helped to sink Jackson's VA secretary nomination in April.

"If he thinks it’s my job to sweep his stuff under the table and ignore our military folks, he’s wrong. If he thinks I should not be sticking up for veterans, he’s wrong,” Tester said at the time, according to Politico. “I look forward to working with President Trump. I’ve worked with him many times in the past, but we disagree.”