Montana Republicans pledge support for “prairie populist” Tester as election nears

A group of conservative Montana Republicans concerned about the direction of their party pledged their support for Sen. Jon Tester’s reelection bid on Tuesday, calling the Big Sandy farmer a prairie populist and a moderate Democrat who has a proven track record of working across party lines when representing the state. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A group of conservative Montana Republicans concerned about their party’s direction pledged their support for Sen. Jon Tester’s reelection bid on Tuesday, calling the Big Sandy farmer a prairie populist and moderate Democrat who has a proven track record of working across party lines when representing the state.

As members of the upstart Republicans for Tester, the GOP conservatives said they don’t agree with Tester 100 percent of the time. However, they added, his record of representing veterans, agriculture and public lands has earned their respect.

It will also earn their vote this November.

“I’m a Republican and I voted for Trump, but also I have seen how Jon Tester has fought for small businesses and veterans here in the state of Montana and throughout our nation,” said Tom Boyle, an Army veteran and small business owner in Helena. “He’s getting things done in Washington, D.C.”

Several members of Republicans for Tester shared their views on the upcoming election during Tuesday’s media call. They voted for Trump and would do so again, though the issues facing Montana are different than those facing the nation.

“The only reason I voted for President Trump – I just didn’t want to see the same things occurring for the next four years,” Boyle added. “I thought a change was necessary at that level. But here in the state, I’m convinced Sen. Tester is who we need to keep in office.”

Tester is seeking his third term in office and will face Republican challenger Matt Rosendale in November. Rosendale narrowly emerged as the victor in the Republican primary, though those on Tuesday’s call cast doubt about his character and his commitment to public lands.

Glasgow Mayor Becky Erickson, Columbia Falls City Council member Mike Shepard and Mick Ringsak, former chair of the Silver Bow County Republicans in Butte, said Tester has shown his commitment to those issues and others dear to the moderate voters.

It’s not about the party, they said, but what’s best for Montana.

“The Republican Party has lost its way,” said Ringsak. “It’s not the party of small business and independents. It’s the party of corporations. The Republicans don’t represent rural Montana or rural America. It’s real hard for rural America to have a voice in Congress when you don’t have anybody from rural America there.”

Ringsak, a veteran of he Vietnam War, traces his roots with the GOP back to 1958 when he worked on his first campaign. He served as the state chair for the College Republicans for Berry Goldwater in 1964, and chaired the Republican Central Committee in Butte in the 1970s.

In later years, he worked for the late Sen. Conrad Burns during his campaigns, as well as former Montana Govs. Stan Stephens and Marc Racicot. He supported the George W. Bush campaign in 2000 and voted for Russ Fagg in the Montana Republican primary.

“There’s four reasons we need to keep (Tester) in the U.S. Senate – veterans issues, agriculture, seniority and character of the individual,” said Ringsak. “I’ve never voted a straight party ticket in my life. I’ve always voted my interests and the character of the candidate, and (Tester) has always been upright and honest.”

President Bush appointed Ringsak as the regional administrator to the U.S. Small Business Administration in Denver in 2001. Tester earned his respect several years later by driving 285 miles from Big Sandy to Butte to learn more about small business and what he could do to help as a new member of the Senate committee.

“I think he’s the greatest veterans advocate in the U.S. Senate, and for that reason alone I would support him and vote for him,” said Ringsak. “But additionally, when it comes to agriculture, there’s only two farmers left in the U.S. Senate, and only one is an active farmer, and that’s (Tester), and agriculture is extremely important.”

Martin Coleman also has deep roots with the Montana Republican Party. He chaired the Gallatin County Republican Central Committee in the mid-2000s and described himself as a fiscal conservative and a staunch supporter of public lands.

“Traditional partisan Republican policies just aren’t working for the average American, much less fellow Montanans in rural counties,” said Coleman. “(Tester) knows personally the hardships of these people and what they face each and every day, and he’s shown the ability to work across the political divide to offer solutions.”

Coleman also believes the Republican Party has abandoned its Teddy Roosevelt legacy of conservation. It’s yet another issue, Coleman said, that differentiates Tester and Rosendale.

In its current form under Trump, Coleman added, the GOP has lost sight of fiscal responsibility. He doesn’t believe Montana needs a Trump-style Republican representing the state in Washington.

“As a fiscal conservative, it’s sadly clear to me the Republican Party doesn’t want to balance the budget, but instead wants to starve vital social programs,” Coleman said. “(Tester) knows the balance between fair and equitable taxation and providing social programs to aid our fellow citizens in need. This gap in quality between the rich and the poor is now at an alarming rate in this country.”