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Democratic Sen. Jon Tester On How He Keeps Winning Elections In Republican Country


Of all the Senate races in the 2018 midterms, Montana was one of the most personal to President Trump. The incumbent Democrat there, Jon Tester, helped bring down President Trump's choice for VA secretary, Ronny Jackson. In the five months leading up to Election Day, President Trump visited Montana four times to campaign against Tester.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I mean, he's a super liberal. How do you - I know you people. I won by a fortune of votes, right? Like, many, many, many votes. And I know you. You know me. I know you. How the hell did you ever elect that guy?

SHAPIRO: Well, on election night, Tester convincingly won a third term. So to talk about how Democrats can find a path in red states, Senator Tester joins us now. Welcome back to the program.

JON TESTER: It is great to be with you, Ari. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Have your fellow Democrats been calling you to ask how you did it?

TESTER: (Laughter) Well, no. I mean, look, I think that this election cycle, there was, like, 25 folks up. And those folks were more concerned about their own turf than mine. Most of the calls I've gotten not how you did it, but just we're glad you did it and congratulations.

SHAPIRO: Well, when you look at the map and all of the purple or red states where Democrats did not win their Senate races, what do you think the big difference was?

TESTER: Well, I don't know. But I can tell you what we did, is we focused on everybody in Montana. We talked to the folks that agreed with me and folks that didn't agree with me all the time. And I think it's important to note also, Ari, that we had a solid record of going out, listening to Montanans, taking their ideas back to Washington, D.C., and having some success getting them passed through Congress. I also think people saw me as being one of them and having the same concerns that they had, whether it was in health care or the higher cost of education or broadband infrastructure, whatever it might be.

SHAPIRO: You say you talked to folks who agreed with you and folks who didn't agree with you. What does talking to folks who don't agree with you look like? Because we don't see so much of that in politics today.

TESTER: Well, I don't think there's a lot of difference. I think you walk in, and you talk to folks and try to justify the perspective. Look, I've been married for 41 years. And my wife and I don't agree on everything, and I don't expect Montanans to agree with me on everything either, especially not...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Are you trying to tell me your wife is a Trump voter?

TESTER: (Laughter) No, no, no. No, she's not. She's very, very supportive. And thank God for that because I couldn't do it without her. But the truth is that nobody agrees with anybody 100 percent of the time. And if it does, that'd probably be a problem. And so look, if they're combative, you're wasting your time. But if people really want to sit down and visit and talk about things like health care, which is a very, very important issue in Montana, I think oftentimes you want to get to the same goal. And that is affordable health care costs. The question is, how are you going to get there so that average Montanans and middle-class folks can afford to be able to get sick?

SHAPIRO: It seems like in many regions of the U.S., President Trump has rural America more or less locked up. How do you think Democrats change that?

TESTER: Well, I think it's talking to people in rural America. I think one of the challenges we've had as Democrats is we haven't done a very good job of that. We've got challenges of distance that you don't really fully realize until you get out there and experience it. Example - if I want to go to the grocery store from the farm, it's about 40 minutes. Those challenges are real when it comes to not only going to the grocery store, but health care, getting products to market and just about a myriad of other issues.

SHAPIRO: But President Trump hasn't experienced those challenges. He's from New York. So why does he resonate so much more strongly with these communities?

TESTER: It's a good question, and I can't give you the full answer to it. But I think in order to get those folks in the Democratic column, you've got to speak to them. And you've got to speak to them and deliver on policies that are important to rural America. And I don't know that either party's done a particularly good job. But folks in rural America think the Republicans have done a better job. And so Democrats need to go to work, roll up their sleeves and take those issues back and try to move forward with solutions.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the incoming Democrats who are going to control the House of Representatives - I know you're in the Senate - but House Democrats are already debating how far to the left they should move. From your vantage point, what needs to happen in Congress in the next couple years for Democrats to then be in a position to take back the Senate and potentially the White House?

TESTER: Well, look. If I was in a position in the House of Representatives to help them with their agenda, I would say one of the things that I hear about Montana that is truly bipartisan is campaign finance reform. I hear it as much from Republicans as I do with Democrats. And if I was the leader of the House of Representatives, the first thing I would do is I would put in a very clean bill on reapportionment. And I would put a very clean bill in that says that corporations are not people.

And I think those are both very commonsense that will allow people to work towards the middle because I think the way our campaign system is set up right now, it pushes people to the fringes and causes a real paralysis in Washington, D.C. If they were to start there and then move forward with a good infrastructure bill and making health care more affordable for working families, I think they'd have a very successful session.

SHAPIRO: Senator Tester, thank you so much for joining us today.

TESTER: Yeah. It's a pleasure, Ari. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, just won his third term in office. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.