Tester has his hands full 

Can the farmer from Big Sandy hold off Denny Rehberg and the conservative juggernaut?

Page 5 of 5

Down on the farm


Jon Tester’s baritone rings out across the farm yard in Big Sandy. Two dogs linger in the shade. It’s near 9:30 in the morning and already waves of heat shimmer over the horizon, all but blocking the view of the Bear Paw Mountains to the east. Sharla emerges from the garage.


“Can you hop in and raise this combine head?”

Sweat pours down the senator’s face as he tinkers with the hulking machine, working to replace a metal tooth. Gone is his trademark grin. His shirt—an old dress shirt whose D.C. life is clearly over—is covered in grime. His hands are callused and filthy. His flattop is hidden under a well-used baseball cap. He’s not very chatty; all of his attention is focused on getting the combine cleaned up and put away.

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  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Tester says the lessons he's learned as a Montana farmer have proven invaluable in D.C. "It's about making things work, it's about sacrifice, it's about doing what you need to do to survive."

He and Sharla are the only ones who tend this farm full time, though they get the occasional helping hand from their son, Shon, and daughter, Christine. A nasty hail storm hit just before the harvest this year, so it hasn’t been the best few weeks for the Testers in northcentral Montana.

Looking toward the Bear Paws, it’s easy to forget the view of the D.C. skyline from Tester’s office on Constitution Avenue. Congress is in recess for several week, affording Tester time to square things away at home. But even in the familiar presence of the relentless Montana sun, he’s still frustrated. The House and Senate took a break without passing a five-year farm bill that producers in Montana and across the nation are anxiously awaiting. A terrible drought is plaguing large swaths of the country. The current farm bill expires in September.

The issue touches not only on a widening gap between generally conservative farmers and Republican politicians opposed to farm subsidies, but the differing reactions from Montana’s senate candidates. The Senate passed a five-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill in late June that replaces subsidies with crop insurance and revenue compensations and covers losses due to bad weather. Tester trumpeted the accomplishment—until the House stopped the bill in its tracks. Republicans hoped to make deeper cuts in funding for food stamps and nutrition programs, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rehberg decried the fact that those allocations outweighed support for family farms and urged House leaders to remain in session through early August and “move this process forward in a timely manner.” Instead, the House passed a one-year agricultural disaster relief program that excluded farmers, and Rehberg voted for the bill.

Around noon, Tester sits at his dining room table and has a glass of Sharla’s lemonade. The television in the kitchen is on, showing the Olympics. Asked when he began preparing for a re-election bid, Tester says he probably didn’t start as early as he should have. “I really focused my work on what we had to do in the Senate, and kinda decided to run about three years ago when Sharla and I sat down and said, ‘Should we do this again or not?’” The call was his in 2006, he says. This time around, it was Sharla’s.

Speculation about a Rehberg Senate bid in 2012 began at least four years ago. But the congressman’s decision came as something of a surprise to Tester, he says; he had no solid idea of Rehberg’s intention until February 2011, when Rehberg filed.

Tester used to have lunch with Rehberg and Baucus about once a month to discuss issues facing Montana, the senator says. That came to an abrupt end last year. “I think he planned on running the minute I got elected,” Tester says now.

The interview turns to outside spending and the attempts by Rehberg and third parties to, as Tester puts it, “make me into something I’m not.” He seems frustrated by the talk of his strong policy ties to the Obama administration. But he hasn’t tried to distance himself from Obama in response to the ads, he says.

“I don’t need to go down the list...wolves, farm dust, whatever.” He made those decisions, he says, “not because it’s different than President Obama’s purview, but because it was the right thing for Montana.”

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad comes on the TV, as if on cue. The organization has attacked Tester for repeatedly “siding with Washington.” This ad encourages voters to “reject Jon Tester.”

This race hasn’t been entirely discouraging for Tester. His interactions with Montanans have been positive, he says. One woman called to thank him for his vote on healthcare reform, he recalls. During a trip up to Milk River, Alberta, for farm supplies he can’t get closer to Big Sandy, he bumped into a man in the grocery store who wished him luck in the election. And when he was in the airport recently, he says, “I walked by the Billings gate, looked over to check and see if I knew anybody there. About two gates past, and I feel this guy has his hand on my shoulder. I turn around and he goes, ‘I was at the Billings gate and just wanted to tell you you’re doing a great job.’”

Tester also has his allies among third parties. And he’s run his own attack ads against Rehberg. Of the $3 million in independent expenditures reported to the Federal Election Commission in Montana’s Senate race so far, $674,474 has been spent in his favor, by groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and NARAL Pro-Choice America. An additional $2.1 million has directly opposed Rehberg. He loathes secret outside money in politics, he says, but Democrats have to stay competitive. “Because of the field we’re on, you have to be able to get ads up that match. Otherwise you just get rolled over.”

Another anti-Tester ad pops up on the TV. This time it’s the latest Crossroads GPS spot. The group continues to mask its Tester attacks from the FEC under the guise of issue advocacy. But, at least from Tester’s point of view, this is no issue ad. It’s an attempt to unseat him not because Crossroads necessarily supports Rehberg’s politics but because backers such as Karl Rove want to see a Republican majority in the Senate.

That same week, Rove tours the Flathead Valley, and so does Rehberg.

“If I had Karl Rove out picking rock in my field or picking hay bales for half a day and he still put those goddamn ads up, I’d say okay,” Tester says. “I’d love to get that son of a bitch out in the field.”

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