“If we become a party of ‘These guys are for the white guys, and these guys are for the brown guys,’ I don’t think that’s healthy for the country at all,” he says over the thrum of the combine engine. “I think we’ve got to be for everybody.”
What does he make of rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the perceived leftward swing of the party?
“I think difference of opinion is a good thing.”
Tester is sticking to the center, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. He first won office in 2006 with a less-than-1-percent margin over the Republican incumbent, Conrad Burns, and scraped through a tight reelection campaign in 2012. He has never won a majority. His success has relied on attracting independents and getting conservatives to cross party lines.
He is now defending his seat against both his opponent, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, and the president of the United States.
The trouble started this spring, when Tester, as the ranking member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, released a list of allegations of professional misconduct against Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Jackson denied the allegations but withdrew from consideration the next day.
The president would not let go so quickly. “Tester should resign,” he tweeted. In July, Trump flew to Great Falls, Montana, to rally for Rosendale. He dedicated much of his speech to Tester. “I know a lot of people from Montana,” Trump told the crowd. “You’ve got to explain that one to me. How did he get elected?”
Read: What is the point of a Trump rally in 2018?
That’s a question the Tester campaign hopes it can still answer. Trump has since visited Montana twice more to rally for Rosendale—both times in the center of crucial districts for the Democrats. His most recent appearance came shortly after Tester’s vote against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“The Democrats have truly turned into an angry mob, bent on destroying anything or anyone in their path,” Trump said. “And your senator is one of them.”
Support for Trump has cooled in Montana, but he still has the approval of the majority of voters in the state. Rosendale, who had been trailing in the race all summer, has gained considerably in recent weeks. Polls now show the race as a toss-up.
For Tester, who at this moment has one hand on the steering wheel of the combine, victory in November depends on convincing a base of mostly Republican voters that he can offer something that transcends party: an up-close understanding of life in rural America.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Tester stood inside the Democratic Party field office in Missoula, Montana, surrounded by dozens of supporters and several sweating tubs of ice cream: “Flattop Fudge” and “Sharla’s Strawberry Rhubarb,” named in honor of his wife of 41 years.