Montana Senate race tight with some votes still uncounted

November 7, 2018
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Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale talks with supporters Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 at the Delta Hotel in Helena, Mont., as he and his supporters wait for the poll results. (AP Photo/ Eliza Wiley)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and Republican Matt Rosendale are locked in a Montana U.S. Senate race that was too close to call Tuesday night with votes still being counted, following a campaign dominated by President Donald Trump’s personal push to vanquish Tester.

He is seeking a third term and faced a stiff challenge after Rosendale’s campaign got a boost from Trump’s repeated trips to the state. The president vowed last spring that Tester would pay at the polls for sinking his first nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, White House physician Ronny Jackson.

About two-thirds of Montana voters said Trump was a factor for them as they cast their ballots, according to an Associated Press survey. During the campaign, Rosendale sought to capitalize on the interest by aligning himself closely with the president’s policies, while Tester was careful not to offend Trump’s supporters.

The Montana seat was one of 10 held by Senate Democrats seeking re-election in states Trump won in 2016. With control of the Senate potentially in play, Republican and Democratic groups spent tens of millions of dollars in an attempt to influence the race. Combined with spending by the campaigns, the total price tag topped $67 million, a state record.

Tester appeared before supporters at his election party before 11 p.m. and told them to go home.

“We’ll let the clerks around the state do their job, we’ll let the folks in Gallatin County finish voting and tomorrow, tomorrow — what are we going to do tomorrow?” he asked the crowd.

“You’re damn right we’re going to celebrate!” he yelled into the microphone.

Rosendale was in Helena, where spokesman Shane Scanlon said he was thanking supporters for their work and telling them it was going to be a long night.

Republican voter Megan Salo said she took notice of Trump’s interest in the race and heeded his call to vote for Rosendale. The 27-year-old, who works in real estate in Billings, Montana’s largest city, said Democrats were too focused on the negative while the economy improves.

“He (Trump) was here because this is a big, big issue,” Salo said. “We needed to get Tester out and bring in someone new for Montana.”

About 15 miles (24 kilometers) away, in the railroad town of Laurel, Theresa Van Tine said the nation needs a division of power in Washington, so that Republicans and Democrats are forced to work together. Van Tine, 50, is a Democrat who relies on a government disability check to pay for groceries and rent. She voted for Tester.

“I can’t stand Trump,” she said. “I know we need change, but I’m not sure he’s the right person for that change. When it’s all more balanced out, better things get done.”

Tester has never won a U.S. Senate election with a majority of the vote, and he said he knew it would be close again this time. He sought to capitalize on a Democratic base outraged by Trump’s election and energized by the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct.

At the same time, Tester tried to appeal to the Trump supporters he needed to win. He cast himself as an independent who would support the president when it was in Montana’s interests and oppose him when it wasn’t.

Tester repeatedly cited legislation that he helped draft and that Trump signed as evidence he can work with the administration. He said his opposition to Trump’s Supreme Court picks, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, were examples of when he had to go against the president.

The 62-year-old farmer and former music teacher is from the small community of Big Sandy and previously served in the Montana Legislature. He won his seat in 2006 by defeating then-U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. Six years later, Tester beat then-U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in his first re-election campaign.

Rosendale, 58, was elected state auditor in 2016 and is a former Senate majority leader in the Montana Legislature, where he represented the Glendive area from 2011 to 2017.

He is a real estate developer originally from Maryland who has lived in Montana since 2002. He previously ran for U.S. House in 2014, where he came in third in the Republican primary and achieved some notoriety for an ad in which he pretended to shoot a government drone from the sky with a rifle.

Rosendale won a four-way primary in June after the Republicans’ first choice to challenge Tester, Ryan Zinke, resigned his U.S. House seat to become Trump’s Interior Department secretary last year.

Rosendale made his campaign about backing Trump, who won a landslide victory in Montana in 2016. He framed himself as a champion of the president’s agenda and Tester as selling out Montana’s interests for those of the Senate’s Democratic leaders.

The race tightened as Trump, eldest son Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence made repeated trips to Montana to rally for Rosendale. Trump blamed Tester, the ranking member of the committee that oversees the VA, for releasing excerpts from interviews with unnamed people who said Jackson drank on the job, overprescribed medication and presided over a toxic work environment.


Volz reported from Helena.


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