Great Falls, Montana, is more than 2,000 miles from Washington, DC, but news of the political brawl between President Donald Trump and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is clear as a rifle shot through the Big Sky State.
Trump has called on Tester to resign after the Montana senator led the charge against Ronny Jackson, the President’s failed pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Jackson withdrew his nomination last week after Tester’s office made public allegations about his professional conduct.
Over the weekend, at a campaign rally in Michigan, Trump claimed that he has information about Tester that, if released, would end the senator’s career.
"Pardon the language, but I think it’s bull butter," said independent voter and veteran Bill Boland of Trump’s claim and call for Tester to resign.
"I think Montanans know who the real Jon Tester is," he continued, "and the amount of work he has done for the veterans in the state of Montana is amazing."
"[Jon Tester] has done some good things for veterans, but this was not one of them" said Roger Hagan, a retired Republican state politician who has worked with and likes Tester but said his handling of the Jackson nomination has "pretty much reinvigorated me to work to oppose him."
Republicans here sense an opening. The President won Montana by 20 points, and Tester’s is one of five Democratic-held seats in states that Trump won by double digits.
In a February University of Montana Big Sky poll, 41 percent of respondents said the President was doing a "poor" job. Tester, in the same poll, fared somewhat better with 25 percent saying he was doing a "poor" job. The poll was taken before the Jackson controversy.
Tester has a war chest of $6.8 million, raising $2 million in the first quarter of this year alone. Several Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination in June, and two of them have raised several hundred thousand dollars and have more than a half million to spend.
Republicans point to Tester’s first campaign ad, in which he touts working with the President in getting 13 bills signed into law that Tester either sponsored or co-sponsored, eight of them dealing directly with veterans’ issues. Republicans say Tester was happy to align himself with the President, and now with calls from Trump to resign, Tester should heed the advice.
Tester told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the committee heard from nearly two dozen witnesses who, among other things, claimed Jackson was nicknamed "the candy man" for his habit of handing out prescription drugs to staffers who needed to sleep or stay awake that he drank, at times excessively, on some official overseas trips and that he fostered a hostile work environment.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, refused on Monday to agree with Trump’s criticism of Tester over his handling of Jackson’s nomination.
Boland acknowledged that Tester’s airing of allegations against Jackson may have complicated his path to re-election in November.
"I think there will be some (voters) that will go but that will be those looking for something against Jon Tester," Boland.
With a total population of just over a million Montanans, there are some 100,000 veterans, 10 percent of the state’s population. Their votes cannot be underestimated.
At the VFW Post 1087 in Great Falls, some veterans enjoying a beer and watching the NBA playoffs on a Sunday afternoon say their problem with Tester is that he went public with allegations against Jackson before a full investigation was concluded.
John Bailey, a tattooed 26-year Army veteran who started his career in Vietnam, said he didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton. Of the President’s threat, he said, "the President is doing good things, it is also kind of a knee-jerk reaction."
Richard Liebert, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who identifies as a "Teddy Roosevelt Democrat" is now a cattle rancher who says he supports Tester 100 percent. He says the senator’s handling of Jackson "makes (the election) a little bit more precarious." But he’s counting on a blue wave and voters turned off by the President being "more reflective on getting out to vote and saying this is important."