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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Tester Template Under GOP Assault

In her article “Montana GOP Has a Ploy to Sink Sen. Jon Tester: A New Election Law” at The Daily Beast, Ursula Perano reports on the Republican scheme to defeat the MT Senator — and bury his example of how a common sense Democrat can win in a “red” state. As Perano writes:

After three Senate elections in which Democrat Jon Tester narrowly beat the Republican candidates by—collectively—40,000 votes, Montana Republicans are striking back.

The GOP-controlled state legislature is considering a radical change in election law—a change that is nakedly targeted at taking down Tester and could, in effect, flip one of the most vulnerable Senate seats well before November 2024.

Montana Republicans are trying to take a page out of California’s playbook and switch their primary election to the controversial top-two primary system, otherwise known as a “jungle primary.”

But it’s only for next year, when Tester, Montana’s last statewide Democrat, is up for re-election. After that, the change would expire, supposedly so lawmakers could assess how things went.

It’s a move that would obviously benefit the GOP—with suspiciously convenient timing. After the bill stalled in committee, the measure quickly sped through the state Senate, and now seems on the fast track toward becoming law.

Democrats, many flabbergasted by the ploy, are calling out the move.

They shouldn’t be flabbergasted. But they should be alarmed. Anyone following recent politics will not be surprised that the Republicans would try a sleazy back door gambit under the guise of “electoral reform” to unhorse one of the most impressive U.S. Senators. Perano notes further,

Republicans, hands down, would have preferred Tester not to run for re-election in 2024. He’s considered the only Montana Democrat prepared to actually compete for the Senate seat. And he’s managed to hang on through his past three elections, even as the state more broadly trended red.

But with a top-two primary, the math could sway in the GOP’s favor.

In a jungle primary, all candidates of both parties run in the same primary, and the top-two vote getters head to a runoff. That could mean that two Republicans simply beat Tester during the primary and only they go to the final vote during the general election. More likely—but potentially just as consequential—it could mean that Tester and a Republican go head-to-head during the general election, and third-party candidates, namely Libertarians, wouldn’t have a spot on the ballot.

In two of Tester’s previous three races, Republicans and Libertarians combined got more votes than Tester’s Democratic total. If there were no Libertarian option, the working assumption is Republicans would likely pick up those votes.

The GOP sees Tester as vulnerable and his seat as a potential pick-up in their quest to win a senate majority. But it may be that they fear his “template” as a rare elected Democrat who supports a moderately progressive agenda with eloquent, plain talk even more. As one of the smartest Democratic senators, Tester connects with working class voters in a way that wins their support.

Unlike Republican leaders who ride around in pick-up trucks they don’t need and fondle rifles in their campaign ads, or other “all hat and no cattle” ranchers, or GOP preppies in mega hats, Tester has authentic blue collar cred few Republicans can match. He’s the real deal, a guy who loves working on his farm, but not posing with hay bales and enjoys repping his state and keeping up with the issues that really matter to Montana farmers and working families. Try to think of a Republican senator who has even a shred of that “look.”

If the new generation of Democratic candidates replicated Tester’s example even in approximate ways, it could spell disaster for Republicans, and they know it. If events turned in such a way that Tester became a presidential candidate, even worse for them. The GOP would love to cancel Tester and blot out his example.

Don’t let them. Anyone can contribute to Tester’s re-election at this link.

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