BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Outside groups and individual donors have poured more than $45 million into Montana’s U.S. Senate race as President Donald Trump prepares a third trip to the Big Sky state in his crusade to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
The contest is on pace to be the most expensive in Montana history, and it’s been driven by Trump’s apparent personal interest in Tester’s defeat and his efforts to ensure Republicans keep power in the Senate.
Republican challenger and Trump loyalist Matt Rosendale is far behind in fundraising. But he’s stayed competitive with $14 million spent by deep-pocketed conservative groups on his behalf, largely on ads attacking Tester on guns, immigration and taxes, according to an Associated Press review of spending reports.
Tester says it’s a case of outside interests trying to influence Montana politics. But he also has out-of-state backers: Political committees representing conservation groups, hospitals and banks.
Trump targeted Tester for defeat after the Democrat made allegations public that derailed the president’s Veteran Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson in April. The allegations against the White House doctor included drunken behavior, overprescribing prescription drugs and fostering a hostile work environment. Jackson has denied the accusations.
Trump tweeted late Wednesday that Tester had made “vicious and totally false statements” about Jackson and that the Democrat “looks to be in big trouble in the Great State of Montana!”
Trump is expected to again go on the attack against Tester during a Thursday campaign rally for Rosendale at the Missoula airport. It’s the latest in a parade of White House visits to Montana that have included Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr.
Montana voters backed Trump by 20 percentage points in 2016. Rosendale, currently serving as state auditor and insurance commissioner, has staked his campaign on a bet that those voters will come out for him in November.
Like Trump, Rosendale has sought to capitalize on anger over the Supreme Court confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh — by attempting to draw parallels with Tester’s actions involving Ronny Jackson.
“The people across the state have witnessed the tactics of Washington Democrats — which Jon Tester has clearly become a part of — simply trying to smear people and distort facts and maintain power,” Rosendale said in an interview.
Tester voted against confirming Kavanaugh, citing his stance on campaign finances and personal privacy, and the sexual assault allegations against the judge by Christine Blasey Ford.
The Democrat rejected the argument that he’s changed since he took office and said Republicans employed similar strategies during the campaigns that he won in 2006 and 2012.
“In order to beat me you’ve got to make me into something I’m not. And that’s what they’ve done their level best to do,” Tester said. “Look, Montanans know who I am, they know I’m a lifetime Montanan, they know I understand rural America, they know I understand public lands and not privatizing them.”
The race could soon surpass the state’s previous most costly election, when $47 million was spent leading to Tester’s narrow win over former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in 2012.
Outside spending in this cycle already exceeds $25 million, according to the AP’s review. That figure includes more than $1 million spent by groups that favored Rosendale and attacked his GOP opponents in the June primary.
Among those backing Rosendale and opposing Tester are two political committees, Restoration PAC and Club for Growth, that are funded by Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein and another committee, the Senate Reform Fund, that’s primarily funded by Texas oil executive Tim Dunn.
Tester meanwhile has benefited from than $11 million in outside spending promoting his candidacy and attacking Rosendale. That includes spending by the political arms of the League of Conservation Voters, the American Hospital Association and the American Bankers Association, which endorsed Tester following his leading role in the effort to change the Dodd-Frank financial law.
Between the candidates themselves, Tester holds a commanding advantage in fundraising, with $17 million in contributions so far this election cycle and $1.8 million in the bank as of Sept. 30, according to campaign filings submitted this week to the Federal Election Commission.
Rosendale brought in about $3.7 million in contributions and had $622,000 in cash Sept. 30, the filings show.
At some point, said Jeremy Johnson, a political analyst at Carroll College in Helena, the money imbalance can get lost in the wash, amid the flood of advertisements now saturating voters’ mailboxes and television screens and the websites they visit.
Montana State University analyst David Parker said Tester’s cash lead is significant, because candidates typically get better rates when buying advertisements than outside groups.
“Tester, as a result, can have more penetration and control his own message,” Parker said. “The outside groups — the money goes less far — and is overwhelmingly negative. You have to tell your own story in the way you want to tell it. Tester can, Rosendale can’t.”