The foul-mouthed farmer sticking his neck out for Democrats’ agenda

Source: By BURGESS EVERETT, Politico • Posted: Thursday, October 7, 2021

Sen. Jon Tester has stepped forward — in quotable, often profane style — as an unlikely backer of President Joe Biden in a deep-red state.

President Joe Biden speaks with Sen. Jon Tester on June 24, 2021, outside the White House in Washington. Biden invited members of the group of 21 Republican and Democratic senators to discuss the infrastructure plan.

When Jon Tester returned from a White House meeting last month, Amy Klobuchar congratulated him for his “nice quote” about the debt ceiling.

As Klobuchar read back Tester’s expletive-infused words, he recalled protesting: “‘Come on. I didn’t say fucking.’ And she said, ‘Oh no, you said fucking.’” After digesting that Klobuchar was right, Tester kicked himself: “‘Goddammit. I’m trying to wean myself off of this.’”

And as for whether Tester’s alignment with Biden and relatively liberal voting record is a clue about whether he’ll retire rather than run again … well, throw another quarter in the swear jar: “Oh, no, fuck that. That’s not my style.”

He believes that his brand of folksy, profane authenticity can appeal to Montana’s red electorate — even in a presidential election-year as splitting tickets gets more and more rare.

“I’m thinking positively of running again. But I haven’t made a final, final decision,” Tester said, citing the advantages to his chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee and senior role on the Appropriations Committee. “I still think there’s folks that appreciate good, moderate perspective.”

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the only Democratic senator from a more conservative state than Tester, and it shows as Manchin seeks to cut down the cost of a massive social spending bill that Biden’s pressing for. But as similarly conservative as their voters might be, the two centrist Democrats diverge from there.

Tester said in a lengthy interview this week that his party could easily find an effective way to spend $3.5 trillion, the original price tag for the party-line package of social programs that Manchin’s trying to shave down. And he acknowledged it might be effective short-term politics for him to publicly push back against Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

But he’s trying to play team ball.

“It’s hard for Chuck right now, dealing with the Bernie-Warren faction and the Manchin-Sinema faction. I don’t want to add to that,” Tester said. “They’re going to hear me complain and bitch and holler and scream when I don’t like it, but it’s not going to be in front of you. And I’m going to be very specific in what I want.”

There’s no one in the Senate like Tester these days, both physically and politically. He’s a hulking presence as he ambles through the chamber’s marble halls, dispensing plainspoken wisdom and pushing what he calls “positive vibes.” When he sips a bottle of beer, he cradles it in between his pinky finger and thumb — a necessary habit since he lost three fingers in a meat grinder as a child.

Tester’s still a working farmer, and it’s not making him rich: He estimates his crops only gross $100,000 to $125,000 in a good year. That intimate knowledge of rural America led Tester to become a leading advocate against raising the stepped-up basis on inheritance taxes, which he said would have “major impacts” on farms. It’s now out of contention for the party’s spending plans, to the chagrin of some Democrats.

And the Montanan was a leading negotiator of this year’s bipartisan infrastructure deal. During that lengthy negotiation, Tester befriended Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the former businessperson and GOP presidential nominee. Asked about their yin-and-yang relationship, Romney deadpanned: “He and I are almost the same.”

“He cuts through the B.S. that’s around here. And says what makes sense,” Romney said. When a Utah project was nearly excluded from the bipartisan bill, Romney added, Tester stood up and said: “’No, that’s not fair to Mitt’ … he went to bat for me without me even having to ask.”