How vulnerable is Senator Jon Tester in today’s political climate?
That question currently radiates throughout the Montana political scene as we gear up for yet another “nationally important” statewide race here in Big Sky Country.
Montana’s Flat-topped Democratic senior senator has so far managed to defy the odds makers in both of his previous Senate runs. In 2006, he upset 3-term incumbent Conrad Burns to gain the seat. In 2012, he fended off a strong challenge from 6-term U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg to retain the seat, despite having to share the top of the Democratic ticket with Barack Obama.
But what is the outlook for 2018? The July poll from Morning Consult on the popularity of each U.S. Senator provides some interesting early insight as we head into 2018. In the July poll, Tester polled with an approval rating of 50 percent and a disapproval rating of 39 percent amongst Montana voters. Those might sound like good numbers until you place them in context of the approval ratings for other senators and then compare them to Morning Consult’s April numbers.
Despite voter approval ratings that hover somewhere in the neighborhood of rat poison for Congress as a whole, voters typically approve of their own senators and representatives. Tester’s disapproval rating of 39 percent is the 4th highest in the Senate. Tester’s counterpart, Republican Steve Daines, received a 53 percent approval rating and a 30 percent disapproval rating in the poll.
Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, the media would have us believe that Republicans are under siege nationwide. The narrative says that Donald Trump, in general, and the healthcare debate, in particular, are dragging down the Republican Party and an anti-GOP backlash is brewing amongst voters.
Maybe that is happening in other places, but what does the data say about Montana? If we compare the July poll to Morning Consult’s April poll, we find that Tester’s popularity has seen a 14 point negative swing in his popularity. In April, Tester was at 57 approve, 32 disapprove. After 7 months of dogged opposition to Trump and the GOP agenda, he finds himself significantly less popular. Daines has also seen his popularity slip, but by a far less dramatic 4 point swing, from 55 approve/28 disapprove to 53/30.
All of this despite the fact that Daines has been the senator under constant criticism and attack from the media, Democratic party, special interest groups, and liberal activists since January 20th. Despite the noise, it’s Tester who voters appear to be moving away from.
Clearly, the “anti-Trump backlash” that is supposed to be materializing against the Republican Party is not materializing in Montana and that is bad news for Tester. We saw some of this in May when Greg Gianforte, an unbelievably flawed candidate, was able to win the special election for Montana’s House seat by a comfortable margin.
If Tester finds himself in a battle against a statewide elected Republican candidate like Auditor Matt Rosendale next year, with the general conservative mood of the state in a mid-term election year that usually favors Republicans, Tester is very beatable.