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Montana is known for being a deep-red state that has a tendency to send moderate Democrats to Washington as U.S. Senators. Donald Trump won Montana in 2016 by a margin of 20 points over Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 14 points, but in the same year, Democrat Jon Tester won re-election to the Senate by a 4-point margin over his Republican challenger. Based on this brief history, you can see how Republicans think they have a reasonable shot to flip this seat in 2016 given how well Trump performed in 2016.

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Here we are in 2018, when the incumbent, Jon Tester, is up for re-election and facing a tough challenge from Republican Matt Rosendale. Sean Trende, of RealClearPolitics, offers some background on the race:

The senior senator from Montana, John Tester, is a man uniquely well suited to take advantage of the state’s quirky nature. A farmer with a flat-top haircut and who lost three fingers on his left hand in a meat grinder accident, Tester’s populist streak fits well with the electorate.

His Republican opponent is state Auditor Matt Rosendale. The race was quiet for most of the cycle, and perhaps for good reason. In 2012, for his first re-election bid, Tester faced a formidable test in U.S. Rep. (and former Lt. Gov.) Denny Rehberg. While Romney was carrying the state handily, Rehberg lost by four points to Tester (a libertarian took 6.6 percent of the vote).

Given that Tester has another term under his belt, a weaker opponent (though still a capable one) and the national environment is worse for Republicans than 2012, many analysts started this race off with Tester as a favorite. Recent polls, however, have showed a much closer contest.

Those of us who live outside the vastness of the Western United States are used to campaigns being fought on “kitchen table” issues, like the economy or health care. This race in Montana, however, has become focused on whether the Republican nominee has ever owned cattle, thanks to an out-of-state group pouring money into television ads painting Rosendale as a carpetbagger from Maryland, according to Roll Call:

A Democratic outside group is going up with its first attack ad against Matt Rosendale, the Republican challenging Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, for being from Maryland and not being a real rancher.

The Majority Forward spot, shared first with Roll Call, features an actor playing Rosendale as he struggles to work what the narrator calls a “multimillion-dollar trophy ranch.”

Majority Forward is the affiliated nonprofit of Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC that works to elect Democrats to the Senate. The ad is part of the group’s previously announced seven-figure fall reservation in the state.

Democrats have been attacking Rosendale, the state auditor, for being from out of state, using his past as a land developer to argue he doesn’t understand Montana values, especially when it comes to public lands. Democrats have seized on a May story by Talking Points Memo about the Republican nominee never having owned cattle.

The ad accuses Rosendale of dressing up as a rancher and shows the actor wearing white boots, unpacking a saddle from the trunk of a Jaguar and struggling to carry hay.

Democrats are using Rosendale as a foil against Tester, who’s running as a longtime Montana farmer.

With tester’s built-in advantage as an incumbent, and the possibility that Rosendale could suffer for having deep enough ties in the state, Republicans are trying to nationalize the race and have brought President Trump and his son, Don, Jr., to help make Rosendale’s case, as US News reports

Donald Trump Jr. urged Bozeman residents to send Republican Matt Rosendale to the U.S. Senate because he will support the president’s agenda.

Trump Jr. said Tuesday that “we need people who will fight with my father because he’s done a lot of great things.”

The Bozeman rally marked Trump Jr.’s second campaign visit on behalf of Rosendale.

President Trump has visited Montana twice and Vice President Mike Pence plans a second visit on Oct. 2 in Bozeman.

That’s two Trumps visiting so far, with Vice President Pence on the way soon. I wouldn’t be shocked if the President makes another visit there before Election Day since his presence may be beneficial for Rosendale.

Polls

Polling, at the current glance, still gives Tester a noticeable edge, as the latest findings show from RealClearPolitics:

Rosendale Tester 2018 Montana Senate Polls

Given Trump’s performance in the state, however, and the fact that most of the polls are still within the margin of error, Rosendale has a real shot at unseating Tester on November 6, but Tester is currently in the slightly stronger position.

Issues

We’ve already touched on the issues being waged on Montana airwaves over Rosendale’s credibility regarding his ranching experience, but what else is driving this race? It seems that Tester, knowing his state well, has taken it up himself to tout his collaboration with President Trump on Veterans’ issues, according to the Associated Press:

The ad highlights two pieces of veterans’ health care legislation signed into law by the Republican president — one intended to improve access to care and another to protect corruption whistleblowers. It includes news footage saying Tester helped write the bills, side by side with images of Trump praising their passage.

Republicans dismissed the ad as a shameless attempt to gain the president’s favor and deflect attention from their differences on immigration, tax cuts and the Supreme Court.

Find me another Democrat in a tight race putting out ads touting their work with President Trump. You won’t find one. Well, maybe Manchin in West Virginia, but nowhere else.

Tester differs with Trump on many issues, but Montana is what it is, and Tester knows that going full progressive is a sure-loser in this solidly red state. If he can praise Trump from time to time, and explain why he differs on some issues without denigrating Montana’s many Trump voters, he’ll likely be able to hold this seat in Democratic hands.

Rosendale is making a solid push to recapture this seat for Republicans, and it’s possible he may be the victor on Election Night, but he still has a long haul to get there, even with the President’s support.

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Nate Ashworth is the Founder and Senior Editor of Election Central. He's been blogging elections and politics for almost a decade. He started covering the 2008 Presidential Election which turned into a full-time political blog in 2012 and 2016.

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