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Montana's Senate Race Might Come Down To Who's More Likable


One of the tightest U.S. Senate races in the country could come down to something pretty old-fashioned. Who is more likable? That's a key strategy of Montana Democrat Jon Tester. He's trying to win a third term against Republican challenger Matt Rosendale in a state where President Trump is wildly popular. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: President Trump will visit Montana for a fourth time this weekend to stump for Republican Matt Rosendale. He's a former state legislator and current insurance commissioner.


MATT ROSENDALE: Good evening, Montana.


SIEGLER: Here's Rosendale speaking at a recent Trump rally.


ROSENDALE: President Trump is making history again here in Montana, by golly.


SIEGLER: Now, Rosendale's speeches tend to be short. He usually sticks to GOP talking points - on the border wall, on guns, repealing Obamacare. But he quickly comes back to the fact that he is all in with the Trump agenda.


ROSENDALE: President Trump and all of his policies are on the line. So let's make history and retire Jon Tester and send President Trump the help he needs.

SIEGLER: Rosendale moved here from Maryland in 2002, which Democrats point out all the time, including in this Facebook ad where they make fun of how he pronounces the state name.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Because he doesn't sound like a Montanan.

ROSENDALE: Citizens of Montana...

The people of Montana...

Citizens of Montana...

Citizens of Montana...

SIEGLER: Montana is a huge state with barely a million people. So the political playbook here has always been shake as many hands with as many Montanans as possible.

JON TESTER: How are you?


SIEGLER: It's worked for Jon Tester twice before in similarly tight contests. With his signature flat-top hair, the Senate's only working farmer spent part of this week campaigning on the state's remote Hi-Line.

TESTER: He doesn't know what the challenges are in Montana 'cause he's not from here. And look, I couldn't go to Maryland and do it. And I'm not going to 'cause I don't particularly want to. I love this state.

SIEGLER: The Hi-Line is a vast region of prairies and wheat fields along the border with Canada near where Tester grew up. There are three reservations here, traditional Democratic strongholds.


SIEGLER: At this get out the Native vote rally, there's an honor song. And at a nearby table, Raymond King, a Vietnam vet, says he doesn't trust Rosendale.

RAYMOND KING: He's never lived here. He's not from here. How can he be for Montana? And so I think he just wants to sell some more land.

SIEGLER: Rosendale has been a real estate developer. His campaign declined interview requests. And right now, support for Tester is predictably strong in the liberal college towns and say the state capitol. But the rural areas are harder to gauge. Most voted for Trump, but some also re-elected a Democratic governor. On the country highways, you're just as likely to see a Rosendale sign plastered on an old barn as you are one for Tester.

SUSAN GOOD-GEISE: Montana is truly a maverick.

SIEGLER: Susan Good-Geise is a classic example. She formerly chaired the state GOP but is a vocal critic of Trump. Now she says Montana is known for voting people over party.

GOOD-GEISE: They want somebody who's approachable. They want somebody with whom they'd be comfortable having a beer or seeing them at church or seeing them at a basketball game, you know. And Jon Tester is certainly that.

SIEGLER: But that folksy-old model is getting tested right now. And she says this race has become more like a symbol of the country's tribalized politics.

BRAD LOTTON: Come on in, and get away from the highway.

SIEGLER: In Havre, the largest town on Montana's Hi-Line, Republican Brad Lotton runs a construction company on the east end of town.

LOTTON: I don't know how long you have to be here before you're considered a Montanan.

SIEGLER: Now, Lotton's met Rosendale several times. And he supports him, even though like most people here Lotton has a connection to Tester. His brother went to junior high with him.

LOTTON: But if you're a Montanan and you vote with California here, you really have lost touch with your voters or your constituents.

SIEGLER: The latest poll shows Tester with a narrow lead, though the Libertarian candidate in the race just endorsed Matt Rosendale, which could give the Republican a boost. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Havre, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIN HAT'S "NEW WEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.