President Donald Trump is making his third trip to Montana Thursday to campaign on behalf of Republicans in the midterm election, an unheard of number of presidential visits in just four months for a state with barely more than a million people.
Trump will hold an event at Neptune Aviation at Missoula International Airport to lend his brand to Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who is trying to unseat incumbent two-term U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. Tester is one of 10 Democrats running to keep their seats this year in a state Trump won in 2016.
National political analysts say Trump's extraordinary focus on Montana may reflect a vendetta against Tester that has its roots in the president's failure to win approval for Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, Trump's first nominee to run the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I think Montana’s getting a little more attention than some of the other top-tier Senate races,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan campaign analysis and race ratings.
Gonzales said Tester entered Trump’s radar when the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee publicly released claims of inappropriate behavior by Jackson, including drinking while on the job and improperly prescribing pills. Jackson eventually withdrew his nomination and is under a Pentagon investigation.
“I think after the senator poked the bear, or the president, on Ronny Jackson, he drew the continued interest of the president and the outcome of the race,” Gonzales said.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with Cook Political Report, said the attention Trump has paid to Montana is unusual, but the word could also be used to describe the entirety of Trump's presidency.
"(Trump) apparently has taken a great deal of interest in this race," Duffy said. "He likes Rosendale. I think he's annoyed by Tester."
Duffy said besides the Jackson nomination, Trump could be irritated because Tester does a fair amount of campaigning in the president's name, yet "has voted against all the 'important stuff' to Trump."
That includes votes against both of Trump's Supreme Court nominees, Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, as well as the president's tax cut bill, Duffy said.
While Tester has voted against several of the president's biggest political victories, he's still a more moderate Democrat than many of the other members of his party, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Maxine Waters of California, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, that Trump likes to rip at rallies.
Before a Billings rally in September, Tester ran television ads highlighting when Trump has praised Tester's legislation on veterans. Tester's campaign also has taken to pointing out all the other things Trump could do when he's in Montana besides hold political rallies, like visiting veterans homes or rural hospitals to better understand the problems facing the state.
While Trump and his surrogates — Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. have both come to Montana multiple times — tell rally attendees everything the president stands for is on the ballot this November, Tester reminds Montanans it's just his name and Rosendale's they'll see in the voting booth.
“I’m not going to bring in any surrogates,” Tester said. “I could bring in anybody you want, but I really think in the end those guys aren’t going to be representing Montana in D.C. Those women aren't going to be representing Montana in D.C. I am or, God forbid, he is.”
Rosendale spokesman Shane Scanlon said the rallies show Trump is committed to Rosendale and recognizes he needs a Republican in the seat.
"He is all in for this race. President Trump needs Matt in the Senate to help complete his agenda," Scanlon said.
In 2016 Trump won Montana by 20 points, which Scanlon cited when saying "it's very clear the people of Montana stand behind President Trump and his agenda."
Following the divisive Kavanaugh nomination, Scanlon said the campaign has heard from voters who want to "retire Jon Tester" over his votes against Gorsuch and Kavanauh.
"Those are the issues we hear about on the campaign trail, and that sums up how far apart the two candidates are in this race," Scanlon said.
Trump has held 30 "Make America Great Again" rallies since his election, many in support of House and Senate candidates in this year's midterm election. Political analysts project Democrats have a chance of taking back control of the U.S. House, while Republicans are likely to retain their majority in the Senate.
In Montana, the rallies have focused far more on the Senate race, even though Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte is seeking re-election against former state lawmaker Kathleen Williams, a Democrat.
The Cook Political Report and the FiveThirtyEight political polling analysis site continue to give the edge to Gianforte in the House race, although neither rates the race as a slam dunk for Republicans.
But the Tester-Rosendale contest has tightened in recent months.
Duffy said she thinks the rallies have fired up voters and helped erode Tester's early advantage, prompting the Cook Political Report to move the race into its "toss-up" category.
"I do think (Trump) is bringing Republicans home, especially Republicans who are sort of marginal Tester supporters," Duffy said. "He comes here and he says 'This is important to me and pretend I'm on the ballot.'"
While a Senate race is naturally more about national issues than a gubernatorial contest, the national focus has been amped up higher in the Tester-Rosendale battle than in years past, Gonzales said.
“One of the fundamental fights of the race is Republicans wanting to make it a national race and Democrats like Tester wanting to make it a state and local race,” Gonzales said.
“Republicans understand that if it’s a national partisan race, then they’re probably going to win. Democrats and Tester want a local race about public lands and farming and ranching and personality because they believe that’s where the senator will have the advantage,'' he said.