Remember back when national analysts were calling Matt Rosendale a Tier B candidate, with Republicans bemoaning the fact that the state’s big GOP names were staying out of the race with Jon Tester? Based on an anemic performance against an underwhelming field of primary opponents and a first week of the general campaign marred by fumbles and errors that have exposed Rosendale as a weak candidate with a weak staff, that Tier B analysis might have been wildly optimistic.
In fact, a week in, it might be tempting for supporters of Senator Tester to start taking this race for granted, something we absolutely need to avoid. Weak candidate and weak campaign notwithstanding, Rosendale enters the general election campaign with three advantages that could well make this race competitive.
The first issue, as any East Coast real estate developer will tell you, is location, location, location. While Montana is not Idaho or Wyoming, the trends over recent years show an increasingly conservative state more aligned with Republicans. It’s a climate that is increasingly hostile for Democratic candidates, as the Rob Quist defeat and the state of the Legislature clearly demonstrate. If Matt Rosendale deliberately chose a state to move to run for Congress–and at this point, who is to say he didn’t?– he could have done better than Montana, but not by much.
A second advantage Rosendale possesses is his perverse willingness to lie even when the lie is as transparent as his bid for State Auditor as a stepping stone to national office was. Rosendale lies readily and often, whether it’s about matters as policy-oriented as Jon Tester’s legislative record in the Senate (15 bills and counting) or as personal as his own biography. Despite copious evidence that he’s anything but, Rosendale continues to tell the Montana press and voters that he’s a rancher, and despite his own words, he lied to the press about the scheduled debate this weekend before turning tail and claiming he needed family time instead of facing the Senator.
How could mendacity be an advantage? Despite their best efforts, the media struggle, in this post-Trump world, with candidates and government officials who lie so nakedly. While the press has gone after Rosendale for Debategate, his other dishonest statements have gone largely unchecked by the press. Over 18 months into the Trump presidency, the national press is still debating how to deal with a president who won’t–or can’t–tell the truth, and Rosendale seems committed to the same Trumpian approach. Despite more tools at our disposal than ever, voters seem disinclined or even hostile to the idea of fact checking, something that will certainly advantage a candidate who spent this week braying about the cost of a home owned by Jon Tester without disclosing that he is a massive real estate developer still.
I know the press is aggressively disinclined to call a lie a “lie,” but when a candidate lies, the press needs to make that clear or our campaigns and even governance are going to continue to get more and more debased.
A final advantage Rosendale has going into the race is the sea of dirty money that will be spent to elect him by conservative groups. Those groups probably won him the primary race, despite an uninspired campaign, and they will be back in full force this fall. If you think the ads criticizing Russ Fagg for giving a criminal defendant the exact sentence prosecutors asked for was misleading and crude, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Senator Tester will certain have outside money spent supporting him, too, but I expect much of his campaign will be positive, focusing on his achievements and record of delivering for Montana. The Butte Veterans home? VA Choice? Increased health care coverage for Montanans? All because of Jon Tester’s efforts. In this cynical, post-truth world of American politics where the two other members of the Montana Congressional delegation issue press releases taking credit for bills they voted against, though, it’s anyone’s guess how a campaign of accomplishment will fare against a campaign of fear and dishonesty.
I think Jon Tester is going to win this race: he’s running against the weakest candidate he’s faced, he has reached across the aisle to score real wins for Montanans, and his campaign staff is dedicated and skilled. Anyone who thinks, though, that this race will take anything less than our complete effort misunderstands the candidate Tester is facing and the campaign that candidate will run.
If you want to keep a Senator who Montanas can be proud of in office, this is the time to act: make sure your friends who are as political are informed about Tester’s record (perhaps a little truth now will inoculate them against the lies to come), call Tester’s office and see how you can help, or even throw them a little money. We should win this thing, but it’s going to be a challenge.
Are we up to it?