Mick Ringsak took the stage at the Finlen Hotel in Butte and told the assembled Democrats he had voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But the Vietnam war veteran said this year he was supporting Jon Tester, the Montana farmer and Democratic senator who has become one of the president’s top targets in the midterm elections.
Flanked by two dozen veterans at the hotel in the historic copper mining town, Mr Ringsak recalled how Mr Tester had once driven 240 miles to Butte from his farm in Big Sandy and spent hours discussing veteran issues with him before he had even entered the US Senate.
“For somebody who has not yet been elected to office to call up and say I’d like to talk about programmes for veterans was amazing,” Mr Ringsak said. “Jon has been working for veterans before he was even sworn in and he has never stopped.”
Mr Tester hopes veterans — who make up 10 per cent of the population in the “big sky” state — will help him beat Matt Rosendale, a former Maryland property developer backed by Mr Trump, who won Montana by 20 percentage points in the presidential election.
The Cook Political Report recently changed its rating on the race from “lean Democrat” to “toss up”. Republicans are pouring lots of money and energy into a few conservative states in a bid to preserve — or even expand — their 51-49 Senate majority by ousting Democrats such as Mr Tester.
Mr Trump is leading the charge. Hours after Mr Tester left Butte, the president landed in Missoula for his third Montana rally this year. Speaking at the airport, he invited Mr Rosendale on stage and described Mr Tester as a liberal who had opposed both his Supreme Court picks and the Republican tax cuts.
“He talks like he’s from Montana and he votes like he’s Nancy Pelosi,” Mr Trump said at the rally.
Mirroring a tactic used by other vulnerable Democrats in conservative states, Mr Tester tries to avoid rebuking Mr Trump. Instead, he defines the race as a battle between himself and Mr Rosendale, the state auditor who has been nicknamed “Maryland Matt” due to his lack of local roots.
“I’m somebody who was born and raised here . . . who has raised my family here,” said Mr Tester, the only working farmer in the Senate. “The other guy has made millions being a developer in Maryland and came here and bought a ranch, wants to be a rancher, has no cows . . . you get my drift?”
One of his campaign videos says Mr Rosendale, who has lived in Montana for 20 years, is “all hat, no cattle”. In the ad, one farmer says the “only thing he understands about farms is how to turn them into real estate developments” before another says: “Montana will never fall for Matt Rosendale’s load of bull.”
Max Baucus, a Democrat who represented Montana in the Senate for 36 years, said Mr Tester was having an impact with his attacks in a state that is wary of outsiders. But he said Montanans also have an anti-elitist streak that has drawn many to Mr Trump. “The problem is Trump has put a target on his back,” Mr Baucus said at the Western Cafe, a local landmark in Bozeman.
Mr Rosendale says his rival does not represent Montana’s conservative values. In a campaign ad funded by the Republican’s backers, Mr Tester sits in a television studio make-up room and says he has to “cover up” his votes, before a man quips: “All the make-up in Montana can’t hide Jon Tester’s liberal record.”
Unlike Mr Tester, Mr Rosendale does not hold many campaign events, preferring to rely on support from Mr Trump. “I don’t know any candidate who has attached himself so closely to the president,” said Jeremy Johnson, a Montana politics expert at Carroll College. “He has not tried to develop his own brand like Tester.”
Asked by the Financial Times outside the Trump rally to respond to the claims that he is a carpetbagger, Mr Rosendale refused to answer the question and walked away.
Mr Johnson said Mr Rosendale was also bucking a trend by focusing on national issues. “Montana is Republican in presidential elections but is traditionally willing to elect some Democrats,” he said, pointing out that Steve Bullock, the Montana governor, is a Democrat. In Butte, Mr Tester stressed that Montanans “pride themselves” on split tickets and “tend to vote for character over party”.
A key factor on November 6 will be whether Trump supporters turn out to vote when the president is not on the ballot. Margo Belden, a Trump fan at the Missoula rally, was far from effusive about Mr Rosendale but said she would support him because “it’s a vote against Tester”.
Her friend Joan Johnston was also critical of Mr Tester but worried that Mr Rosendale would fail to protect the environment in a state that prides itself on its wilderness. Asked whether she was more likely to vote for Mr Rosendale after seeing Mr Trump in person, she responded: “It’s questionable.”
Mr Tester hopes that Trump voters stay home while veterans — who strongly backed Mr Trump — will reward him for his work as the top Democrat on the Senate veteran affairs committee. Eileen Greb, a retired naval officer, told her fellow veterans in Butte that she had no doubt they would.
“Veterans are loyal. You stand with us and we’ll stand up with you,” said Ms Greb. “He has stood up for us and now it is time for us to stand up for him. Get out and vote!”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi
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