POLSON — Drive up U.S. 93 north of Missoula, and it’s hard to parse a political slant. Both Republican and Democratic candidates can claim plenty of campaign signage along the highway that runs up the middle of Lake County.
But over a mug of coffee at Pop’s Grill on Polson’s Main Street, retiree Jerry Peterson makes his stance clear.
“I think he’s doing great,” he said of President Trump. “I support him.” Asked what he thought the president could do specifically for Montana, he said, “just get rid of Tester, that would be a big help.” He considers the Democratic incumbent, locked in a tight race with state auditor Matt Rosendale, dishonest. “He slanders people.”
Trump will soon land in Missoula for his third rally in support of Rosendale. But Peterson, wearing a red “America First” baseball cap, surmised that “smaller towns are probably more supportive than bigger ones, [like] Missoula. Missoula has the nickname ‘the granola bar.’”
The numbers back him up. Just over half of Missoula County voters opted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But in the surrounding counties, Trump’s share of the vote ranged from 57.6 percent here in Lake County to 72.6 percent in Powell, according to Politico.
But even with that president coming to speak in their midst, the Mission Valley's morning-coffee groups were reluctant to talk politics with the Missoulian, opting instead for sports or business. Some venues find the topic too fissile to allow: Both the Old Timers’ Cafe in St. Ignatius and the Ronan VFW have banned political discussions.
And support for Trump isn’t always enough to spur a trip to Missoula. Neither Peterson nor the friends he was having coffee with plan to make the hour-long drive down, citing crowds and the evening return trip.
But Northwest Montana’s Republican organizers are striking an upbeat tone, describing strong excitement for the upcoming visit.
“I can say it’s been absolutely crazy in the Flathead,” said Dee Kirk-Boon, who chairs that county’s Republican Central Committee. “Phone messages, text messages, Facebook, everybody just calling wanting tickets … It has been a flurry of activity since the announcement, kind of like a rock concert.”
Thursday’s event marks Trump’s third Montana visit since July, but Kirk-Boon says local Republicans’ ardor for the president remains strong. “I think that it is just as much interest as the other two rallies have seen, from what I can measure and the enthusiasm I can measure.”
Further south, Susan Lake, treasurer of the Lake County Republican Women’s Club, described similar excitement. “I think everybody’s just preparing to go if they can.
“I think it’s fabulous because it’s closer to home,” she said. “We didn’t expect to see him on this side of the mountains … I’ve found, in my farm organizations, we always meet in Billings.”
Lake won’t be in Montana when Trump comes on Thursday. But in a lucky coincidence, she’ll be visiting family in Elko, Nevada, one of the following stops on the president’s Western tour. For Lake, one of many farmers and ranchers in the area, the chief executive’s interest in agriculture is appreciated.
“It’s the biggest industry in the state of Montana,” she said, noting his speech at the American Farm Bureau in Nashville earlier this year. “For him to be paying attention to agriculture … it’s obvious that we’re still on his radar.”
Farming figures prominently in the campaign that keeps bringing Trump back. Tester and Rosendale have sparred over President Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and agricultural products. Speaking with farmers in August, Rosendale cast the tariffs as necessary to correct long-standing trade inequities between the United States and other countries.
Lake shares that outlook. “Farmers are all for fair trade, [but] we’re kind of tired of free trade. The barriers that we have to getting into other countries and some of the tariffs are ridiculous.”
She conceded that the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel have driven up the price of machinery, but “I’m hoping that this little hurt that we’ve got going right now will turn into big benefits down the road.”
In Ravalli County, realtor Lee Foss isn’t waiting for improvements. He’s already seeing them — and gives President Trump the credit.
“I’ve seen easier ability for homeowners to buy houses [with] less regulations on the banking,” said Foss, owner of Foss Realty. “Just talking with the lenders, they’re telling me that it’s a lot easier for people to get loans especially self-employed people … The hometown banks are now a lot easier to get a loan with.”
Senator Tester has pursued that same goal, co-sponsoring the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act that eased Dodd-Frank Act regulations on smaller banks. It was one of 16 bills Tester sponsored or authored bills that the senator thanked Trump for signing in a full-page newspaper ad before his July rally in Great Falls.
But for Foss, who’s planning to make the trip from Darby with a group, the president is the main draw.
“I have my tickets,” he said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to get to see the president of the United States.”