U.S. President Trump will be on the road nearly non-stop in the final days before the U.S. midterm elections. That includes a weekend rally in Montana, where he’s looking to whip up enough Republican enthusiasm to give the party’s Senate candidate an upset win over the two-term Democratic incumbent. Many Montana voters are weary of the campaign, but as Hendrik Sybrandy reports, Trump’s supporters welcome his visit.
The sounds of autumn echo around downtown Helena, Montana. The leaf blowers are in action. It’s been a mild fall in the state, so far.
“It’s wonderful,” said one voter. “It’s just we know what’s coming.”
He was talking about winter, but another event is looming even closer: the 2018 U.S. midterm elections.
“I’m trying not to pay attention to commercials on T.V. and every day we get stuff in the mail that I use to help the start the fire,” said another man.
A flurry of negative ads has helped fuel the Senate race between Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Matt Rosendale, and the Congressional contest between Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Kathleen Williams, in a part of America where voters don’t always stick with the political party they belong to.
Montana is unique. It ranks 43rd out of 50 U.S. states in population. It’s also the fourth largest state in the country. And yet Montana politics is very personal. Tester has played up that bond with fellow Montanans to win two terms in office already.
“My family homesteaded this land,” said Lee Banville, Professor of Journalism at the University of Montana, describing Tester’s approach. “We have this dirt farm in Central Montana. I am of Montana. I get you.”
This time though, one prominent individual, President Donald Trump, is trying to change how Montana voters decide. When Tester led the opposition to Ronnie Jackson, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, many here say he landed squarely on Trump’s radar.
“He’s mad at Tester,” said one Democratic voter. “Yeah, it’s a personal thing. I think it’s very personal and it costs the U.S. taxpayers a lot.”
Montana, which voted for Trump by 20 percentage points in 2016, has seen him and other top Republicans campaign here frequently as they try to cast Tester as just another Democrat.
“Why do you think they keep coming back?” asked Wilmot Collins, the mayor of Helena, the state’s capitol. “Because Montana voters are their own people. They will listen to you but they’ll make up their own minds as to who’s been in their corner, who’s been helping them.”
“Yep, I do,” one woman said when asked if Trump’s visits have benefited local Republicans. “I think they’ve helped. They’ve helped me.”
“If this race is a referendum on do you support President Trump enough or not, that could be really bad for Jon Tester,” Banville observed. “If it’s do you represent Montana, that’s what he’s been trying to make this whole race about.”
Banville said Tester has voted with the president on a number of issues. But Trump’s attempt to nationalize this race has put the incumbent Democrat in jeopardy.
“Well, I actually think it energizes both sides,” one voter pointed out.
Big Sky country, as this state is known, is typically fly-over country for presidential candidates, but it’s in the national political spotlight now. It will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Early voting has been busier than normal for a midterm. But many Montanans are done with the campaign. Like winter.
“We’re ready as soon as it starts I think for it to be over,” one voter declared, moments after he cast his ballot.