Podcast: Jon Tester, Tim Sheehy Montana 2024 Senate Race : The NPR Politics Podcast Sen. Jon Tester is an experienced political strategist and capable campaigner whose reputation as a working farmer has helped him to defy the odds as a Democratic in ruby-red Montana. But can he win re-election in a year that one of opponents, Republican Tim Sheehy, could benefit from Donald Trump's coattails?

This episode: senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political correspondent Susan Davis, and Montana Public Radio Capitol Bureau Chief Shaylee Ragar.

This podcast was produced by Kelli Wessinger and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

Listen to every episode of the NPR Politics Podcast sponsor-free, unlock access to bonus episodes with more from the NPR Politics team, and support public media when you sign up for The NPR Politics Podcast+ at plus.npr.org/politics.

Donald Trump Won Montana By Double-Digits. Can Its Democratic Senator Keep His Seat?

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KATHERINE: Hi. This is Katherine (ph) coming to you from Ann Arbor, Mich., where I'm mulling over my own Can't Let It Go - the grammatical debate over Taylor Swift's new album title. This pod was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

1:27 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24.

KATHERINE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. But as a former D.C. think tank editor, I will still be advocating for "The Department of Tortured Poets" so it can join the ranks of government acronyms like DOD and DHS. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: It's a very D.C. take on the new album.

KEITH: Very D.C. But it is a good new album. I'll give them that. Hey, there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KEITH: And we've got Shaylee Ragar here from Montana Public Radio. Hello.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: Hello.

KEITH: And today, we are talking about the Senate map in 2024 - in particular, one race in the state of Montana. Democrats hold narrow control of the chamber now, but Republicans appear poised to take the majority. Democratic incumbent Jon Tester of Montana is one of the Republicans' top political targets. Shaylee, you just finished a story about this race. Tell us about Tester and what makes his reelection so difficult this time around.

RAGAR: Sure. Yeah. Senator Jon Tester is a Democrat in Montana seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate. He is also, right now, the last Democrat holding statewide office in Montana. People probably think of Montana as a red state, but we have a long history of being more of a purple state. We had a Democrat in our governor's office for two decades. But in 2020, we saw Republicans sweep every statewide office. In 2022, Republicans picked up a supermajority in the state legislature.

So we've certainly become a more red state in recent elections, and that's the environment that Jon Tester is facing right now in his reelection campaign. He's been identified as a very vulnerable Democrat in the U.S. Senate. So all eyes and a lot of focus from national Republicans is on Tester and trying to unseat him in this election.

KEITH: Yeah, and this is not the first time he's been identified as a vulnerable Democrat, but he came out ahead previously. Who is he most likely to face in the general election?

RAGAR: So his top challenger right now is Tim Sheehy. He's backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair, Steve Daines, who is actually also from Montana. So we have the person who's leading GOP efforts to take back the Senate based in Montana, from Montana, taking on his counterpart, Jon Tester.

Sheehy is a political newcomer. He doesn't have a ton of name recognition in Montana. He hasn't held public office here before. He's a multimillionaire, can also self-fund his campaign. So yeah, he's making the rounds, introducing himself to Montanans and will likely be Tester's challenger in November.

DAVIS: Sheehy has also been a bit on the defense in recent weeks, dealing with sort of an unusual story involving a gun incident some years ago.

RAGAR: Right. Tim Sheehy was cited for discharging his firearm in a national park when he was in Glacier National Park with his family in 2015, before he was even close to entering the political sphere. The citation says that Sheehy discharged the firearm accidentally, and then a bullet was lodged in his forearm. We also know on the campaign trail that Sheehy has talked about having a bullet lodged in his arm from his time as a Navy seal in active combat.

So when the Washington Post asked Tim Sheehy about this inconsistency and where this bullet came from, he says that he lied to the national park ranger who gave him the citation. Sheehy says he was worried that - the bullet that he says he got in active combat was a result of friendly fire. He was worried about an investigation into his platoonmates. He wanted to avoid that investigation.

I will note that Sheehy says, that what happened is he fell and injured himself on a hike. He was at the hospital. Hospital staff told him they were required to report any bullet wounds to law enforcement, and that triggered this investigation from the park ranger. However, after the initial Washington Post story came out, the National Park Service did release more records from 2015. And a summary from the park ranger at that time said he was responding to a reported gunshot at this hiking trail before Sheehy got to the hospital.

So there are still some inconsistencies that we haven't yet seen a resolution to. Sheehy is not releasing his medical records. And, you know, certainly as someone who's new to Montana voters and trying to introduce himself, this is a big hurdle that he's going to have to get over in the next few months.

KEITH: And as if there weren't enough drama and variables in this race, there is also a third-party candidate.

RAGAR: That's right. Sid Daoud is a libertarian running in this race. He's the chair of the Montana Libertarian Party. And libertarians have found support in Montana in the past.

DAVIS: I've talked to Tester earlier in the year, and he had this joke where he said, in Montana, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, and they're all libertarians - in that this is going to be a really tight race. And it is quite possible that, if Jon Tester has a chance to win this race, he might not get over 50% to do it. I don't think he's ever won election with more than 51% of the vote. His elections are always on the margins.

And having a third-party candidate - we've been talking about it a lot on the national ticket - but this matters a lot in races like the Montana Senate race, where a libertarian-style candidate, depending on their caliber and quality, can draw 2, 3, 4, 5% of the vote. And that can matter a whole lot in a race where, if Jon Tester can manage to win - and I think, in some ways, he could be considered the underdog in this race, considering the broader political structures of 2024 - he might need a libertarian-type candidate on the ballot if that candidate is going to be able to pull from the right and against Sheehy.

KEITH: I want to dig a little bit more into who Jon Tester is, both his reputation here in Washington - and, Shaylee, how does he present himself back home in the district?

RAGAR: Sure. Senator Jon Tester has long been known as a farmer from a really small rural town in Montana. And he has long been a plainspoken, down-home-type person who presents himself that way to his constituents, to voters. You know, he's never short on jokes about only having seven fingers. He lost three fingers to a childhood meat-grinding accident. He's known to use swear words on occasion when he's talking passionately about politics. And he's really presented himself as a moderate who knows what it's like to live and work in Montana and who can relate to the average person.

DAVIS: He doesn't, like, physically present in what you would consider the, like, Hollywood typecast of United States Senator, you know? He's kind of slovenly, and I think he would describe himself that way. Like, he's not slick-suited. He has this very characteristic flat-top, marine-style haircut. He is not someone that would like to ever be seen as looking or going Washington and makes a big point in D.C. to note that he's almost always back home and still has a working farm. And especially when it's, like, planting season or other types of the farm cycle, he spends more time back at home.

And I think that - look, Tester is also a very savvy politician. He is also a former chair of the Senate Democrats' campaign operation. He has run national political strategy for the Senate Democrats. Like, he's a small, rural state senator, but he has a very strong grasp of National Democratic Party politics, even if he presents himself as sort of a down-home, rural senator.

KEITH: All right, we're going to take a quick break, and we'll have more on the national Senate map when we get back.

And we're back. Shaylee, are there any issues that are already bubbling up as, like, the big issues in this race?

RAGAR: Yeah, that's a great question. We definitely see immigration as a top issue in Montana. People may be a little confused by that. We do border Canada and not the southern border, but it has emerged as a top issue. We've seen Jon Tester release some campaign ads. He's a more moderate Democrat. In these ads, he has turned harder to the right on immigration. He talks about, you know, opposing President Joe Biden's policies on immigration. Jon Tester posted a video of himself to social media pressing Secretary Mayorkas on immigration.

And that was a big vote for Jon Tester when he voted with Democrats to end the impeachment of Secretary Mayorkas, and Republicans are going to use that against him. We certainly see that as a big issue. Federal spending is important to Montanans. They care about the deficit. And, yeah, we're certainly seeing Jon Tester having to really moderate and even lean to the right on a lot of these issues.

KEITH: Sue, I am hoping that you can help put this Montana race into some context - that is, control of the Senate is really on the line this year. It is very narrowly held right now by Democrats. And as we say, the map is not so good for Democrats this year.

DAVIS: No, I mean, control of the Senate is absolutely in contention, and it leans towards Republicans. Senate Democrats have to basically do the political equivalent of pitching a perfect game to even have the hope of holding onto a 50-50 Senate majority. If you think about it this way, right now, they have a 51-49 majority. Senator Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, when he announced that he would retire, basically took West Virginia off the board. I don't think Democrats are going to put a serious effort in there. That's almost certainly going to flip to Republican control.

So the starting line for 2024 is a 50-50 Senate. And Democrats are basically on defense everywhere. They're just trying to reelect their incumbents. They're not, as of now - maps can change - seriously looking at taking over any Republican-held seats. So every single Democratic incumbent or in an open seat - there's an open seat in Arizona - they need to win. And if Jon Tester does not win reelection, the path for Senate Democrats to hold a 50-50 Senate majority would then turn on their ability to win every other race or flip either Texas or Florida, which is a monumentally difficult task.

So, yeah, what's at stake in Montana for the Democratic Party is huge because Tester's loss alone, even if they win everywhere else, could still deliver a Republican-controlled Senate.

KEITH: Yeah, and I get alerts in my e-mail when there's new campaign ad spending that happens, and I feel like half the e-mails I get are about more spending in the Jon Tester race.

DAVIS: You know, Montana is a small state. It has just two congressional districts. It doesn't have any major media markets. There's only so many places this money can go. But if there is one thing that Montana will not be short of this year it's money in campaign ads.

KEITH: Shaylee, it is worth noting that this year is not like all other years for a Tester reelection bid. He has overperformed Democratic registration in the past. This is the first time that he will be on the ballot when Donald Trump is on the ballot. And the former president is popular in Montana.

RAGAR: Trump is popular in Montana, yes. He won the state by 16 points in 2020. The last time Tester was up for reelection was in 2018, so he has not run with Trump. Trump did come and stump for Tester's Republican opponent four times in 2018, which is also a lot for a state like Montana. We have 1 million people total. And so I'm sure that will play a factor in this race again. Trump has endorsed Tim Sheehy, the Republican opponent, and certainly seems to care a lot about this race.

The Emerson Poll did show in early March that 14% of Montana voters who say they plan to vote for Trump also plan to vote for Tester. So we may still see this purple streak alive and well in Montana. It's hard to say right now.

KEITH: That is what's known as split-ticket voting, and Sue, I thought split-ticket voting was dead.

DAVIS: I can't overstate how remarkable it would be if Jon Tester was able to pull 14% of Trump voters and outperform in that way. It just really doesn't happen anymore, and certainly not in the modern Senate and certainly not in presidential election years where the top of the ticket just aligns so much more sharply down the ballot. You know, this is soft math, but political scientists and campaign strategists that I have talked to over the years say that they put the over/under of what, like, a down ballot candidate can overperform their top of the ticket on. It's usually seen at about seven points.

So, you know, if Joe Biden - sure, if Joe Biden gets 47% of the vote in Montana, could Tester, you know, outperform him by three? That seems mathematically possible. But you look at Montana in 2020, Joe Biden didn't crack 41% of the vote. So, you know, you're already looking at, let's say - I can't imagine Joe Biden does fundamentally much better in Montana in 2024. He's looking at having to outperform the president by, you know, eight, nine, 10 points to win.

And, like, sure, polling indicates that's mathematically possible. He's a very strong incumbent. He's going to have a lot of money. He has a lot of good will in the state. Like, the fundamentals for Tester doing that are strong. But as recent history would tell us, when push comes to shove, people tend to stick with one party down the ballot in recent elections.

KEITH: Well, I'm going to make a bold prediction, but I doubt President Biden is going to be campaigning with Jon Tester in Montana.

RAGAR: I don't think it would help him.

KEITH: Just a bold prediction.

RAGAR: (Laughter) Yeah, so...

DAVIS: I don't think it would help either one of them.

RAGAR: Right. Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

RAGAR: Yep.

KEITH: Sue, quickly before we go, you know, regardless of whether Republicans take control of the chamber, the Republican Senate conference is about to begin a new era.

DAVIS: Sure. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has already announced that he will not stand for leader again. He'll serve through the election, and then Republicans will have to elect someone in November. There's at least two senators who are likely to run - John Cornyn, a Republican of Texas, and John Thune from South Dakota.

But, you know, who wins, how they win, what the Senate margin is, is all going to contribute to those factors. And if you think about if Republicans are successful and do win the Senate, a lot of the senators that will be coming into the chamber will be much more aligned with the Trump, MAGA wing of the party than the old-school, establishment, McConnell wing of the party. Think Tim Sheehy, who I believe has already been endorsed by Trump, Kari Lake in Arizona, Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania. Like, these are people that represent sort of the new future of the Republican Party. So it's going to be a very different Senate next year almost regardless of what the partisan split is.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there for today. Shaylee Ragar from Montana Public Radio, thank you.

RAGAR: Thanks for having me.

KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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