Wall Street Journal: Jon Tester Wants Democrats to Fight for Rural America

by Emily Bobrow

Sen. Jon Tester has bragging rights. The Montana Democrat not only runs his own organic farm but also sports what may well be the Senate’s cheapest haircut (his trademark flat-top costs $11, including tip). A childhood accident with a meat grinder took three of his fingers, but he can still play a decent trumpet and is unexpectedly agile with a basketball. More impressively, Mr. Tester, 64, kept his seat in 2018 in a state that President Trump won two years earlier by 20 points-even though the president railed against Mr. Tester on Twitter (“Very dishonest and sick!”) and stumped for the senator’s rival in a record four trips to the state before the election. In a tough year for Senate Democrats, Mr. Tester won by four points, having swayed not only Democrats but also most independents and 7% of Republicans.

Montana, a huge, sparsely populated, largely rural state, nurses a populist mistrust of big government, which makes voters partial to straight-shooting politicians with deep local roots and a knack for listening. Montanans have elected Republicans in nearly every presidential election since the 1960s, but they have chosen Democrats in the past four gubernatorial races and in five of the past six U.S. Senate campaigns.

Mr. Tester is a third-generation Montanan who still harvests peas and wheat, holds regular town-hall meetings and pushes for policies that protect veterans and small farmers. “Montanans pride themselves on voting for the person, not the party,” explains Mr. Tester over the phone from his office in Washington, D.C.

In his new book, “Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,” Mr. Tester argues that more Democrats should try to learn from his successes, instead of ceding the country’s prairies and exurbs to Republicans. “I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job talking about our vision for rural America,” he says of his party. “To listen, you have to show up, and oftentimes we don’t go to places where we think we’ll get an opinion that we may not want to hear.” Visiting the Iowa State Fair once every four years doesn’t cut it, he says.

Nor does paying attention only to swing states. By clinging mainly to cities and coasts, Democrats not only alienate valuable voters, Mr. Tester warns, but also fail to grasp that many rural Americans care deeply about progressive issues such as affordable education and accessible health care. “The interests of rural Americans line up much more with Democrats than they do with Republicans, but they’re better at messaging,” he says. This is partly why he believes Montana will go for Mr. Trump again in November. “He talks to farmers, he talks to rural America,” Mr. Tester says. “He’s the only game in town.”

Mr. Tester returns to Montana “damn near every weekend” to work with his wife, Sharla, on the 1,800-acre farm that his grandparents homesteaded over a century ago. He is a Democrat, he says, mainly because his family would have lost the farm had it not been for the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt. Like many Montanans, he shoots guns, but he has voted to expand background checks for gun-buyers and condemns the National Rifle Association’s “stubborn zero-tolerance policy for common sense.” Although Mr. Tester began his political career opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, his views on both issues have become more libertarian. When his own son came out as gay, “it opened my eyes,” the senator says.

Mr. Tester entered the Senate in 2007 after unseating a Republican by fewer than 3,600 votes. Although he opposed Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court appointees and tax bill, he regularly collaborates with colleagues across the aisle. He voted to confirm most of the president’s original cabinet, helped revise banking policy to give regulatory relief to small banks and credit unions, supports the Keystone XL pipeline and angered conservationists by working to delist wolves as endangered.

On the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he worked closely with the former Republican chairman, Johnny Isakson, to increase benefits and fund better care for veterans, who make up around 10% of Montana’s million-strong population. During his reelection campaign, Mr. Tester touted the 20-odd bills he had introduced that Mr. Trump had signed into law, most of them related to veterans. In August, the president signed the senator’s bipartisan bill to provide extra legal protections to servicemembers affected by Covid-19.

Still, Mr. Tester worries that the Senate’s partisan gridlock is getting worse. “Bills are written by the leader and put on our desk to be voted on, with no time to figure things out,” he says. He also dislikes the “runaway, unaccountable campaign spending” unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Montana’s Senate races continue to break spending records, from $14 million in 2006 to $73 million in 2018.

For Democrats looking to make inroads in rural America, Mr. Tester notes that health care was Montana’s “number-one issue” during the 2018 election. Back in 2012, the Affordable Care Act, which he supports, was a political liability for him to overcome. Now, his constituents, many of whom are elderly or have pre-existing conditions, are suddenly worried that federal efforts to undermine the act will compromise their access to health care. Such fears have only sharpened during the pandemic, when many people have lost their jobs and their employer-sponsored health insurance. Rural hospitals, such as the one in the town of Big Sandy, near Mr. Tester’s farm, are also losing too much money to stay open. “When you lose your hospital or your bank or your school, you’ve got nothing. Nobody’s going to live there,” he says.

Mr. Tester worries about the larger problems of rural America. Montana’s cities and college towns are growing, but its rural parts are shrinking. The population of Big Sandy, for example, has declined from 1,000 in 1960 to around 600 today. “I see schools with a fraction of the kids they used to have,” he says.

Many young Montanans don’t see their future in farming, which, Mr. Tester notes, now involves competing against big agribusiness firms and grappling with the effects of climate change, such as increasingly unpredictable weather and sawflies that can ruin entire wheat harvests. He is working to halt agricultural mergers, support rural infrastructure and make farming and meatpacking more economically sustainable for small providers, but even his own children have sought different paths for themselves. The senator holds out hope that his 14-year-old grandson will take over the family farm one day. Meanwhile, he says, “I’ve just gotta hold on and keep doing the work.”