How The Kavanaugh Nomination Battle Is Playing Out In Montana's Senate Race

Oct 3, 2018
Originally published on October 3, 2018 7:37 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Montana has become a popular campaign stop for President Trump and Vice President Pence, so popular that each of them has been there twice in recent months. That's because Republicans are trying to unseat two-term Democratic senator Jon Tester. During Pence's second visit there yesterday, he fired up a rally talking about Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Running in a state that President Trump won by more than 20 points, Tester emphasizes that he can work with Trump. He's run an ad listing 19 bills he's supported that Trump has signed. So when Vice President Pence spoke in Bozeman yesterday, he painted Tester as a reliable and reflexive member of the Democratic resistance.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Even before these latest allegations are fully investigated, Senator Jon Tester already announced that he's voting no on Judge Kavanaugh, just like he voted no on Justice Gorsuch.

WHITNEY: Tester didn't take a position on Kavanagh's confirmation until after last week's hearings were over and then came out against Kavanaugh, citing first his record on privacy issues and support for the Patriot Act.

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JON TESTER: For those reasons and all the reasons that were brought up last week, I made a decision to vote no on Judge Kavanaugh. I don't think he has the merits nor the background to meet the needs of the Supreme Court.

WHITNEY: Republican challenger Matt Rosendale says he'd be a more reliable ally for President Trump and cited the Supreme Court vote as an example.

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MATT ROSENDALE: Myself and a lot of the people across this nation are very disturbed with the way this entire process was handled. There's a man who has a commendable record, and he should be serving on the bench. And absolutely I would vote for him.

WHITNEY: On paper, standing firmly with President Trump would appear to be a winning strategy in Montana. The population here skews older and whiter than the U.S. in general. Montana also has the second-highest population of veterans per capita of any state, guys like Jim Henningfeld. Retired after 20 years in the Navy, Henningfeld now volunteers at the airport in Missoula helping arriving tourists. He voted for President Trump.

JIM HENNINGFELD: You ain't going to mess around with this country. We're going to do something. There's no crossing our line, a red line. We're going to do it.

WHITNEY: While Henningfeld says he - hell, no - didn't vote for President Obama, like many Montana voters, he isn't easy to pigeonhole. He says he's voted for Tester before and for Democratic governor Steve Bullock in 2016. And he says a candidate's support for the president or Tester's vote on Kavanaugh's nomination won't sway his choice.

HENNINGFELD: No, because I don't use that as a platform to make my decision.

WHITNEY: Still, plenty of voters do see their vote as a sign of support for President Trump. Bozeman retiree Susie Burton was at a senior community center yesterday near where Vice President Pence was holding his campaign rally.

SUSIE BURTON: Well, I think our president is doing marvelously, actually. He keeps his promises. And not many of them do.

WHITNEY: While President Trump is front and center in the Senate race, here, identity and local issues also matter. For example, Tester has put Rosendale on the defensive about whether national forests in Montana could be privatized. Rosendale initially opposed federal land ownership but says he's now convinced that that's not what people want. And Tester leans hard on his image as a third-generation farmer. Rosendale moved to the state in 2002 after a career as a Maryland real estate developer. Voters will be watching closely Saturday as the two debate one last time before early voting starts later this month. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.