GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — In a campaign stop that was both political and personal, President Donald Trump targeted Democrat Jon Tester on Thursday in a bid to get more Republicans elected to the Senate but also to punish the lawmaker he blames for derailing his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Appearing in a state he dominated in 2016, Trump cast Tester as a "liberal Democrat," railing against his voting record on issues like abortion, immigration and taxes. While Tester opposed Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, and the Republican tax bill, he also took flak from the left for a bill easing the rules on banks.
Tester tried to counter Trump's visit by taking out a full-page ad Thursday in more than a dozen newspapers across the state thanking him for signing 16 bills the Democrat sponsored or co-sponsored.
Trump rallied in Great Falls to boost the candidacy of Tester's Republican challenger, state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who is seeking to deny Tester a third term and give Montana an all-Republican congressional delegation. The president has made the Montana race a priority as he hopes to help Republicans tighten the party's hold on the Senate. He welcomed Rosendale onto the stage, calling him a "very special person."
"You deserve a senator who doesn't just talk like he's from Montana. You deserve a senator who actually votes like he's from Montana," Trump said.
In the crowded arena, Trump made clear the campaign stop was personal as he lamented the failed nomination of White House physician Ronny Jackson to lead the VA. Trump blamed Tester for "shameful dishonest attacks on a great man, a friend of mine."
Tester is one of 10 Democrats running in states Trump won in 2016. Trump singled out Tester in April, saying the farmer from Big Sandy "will have a big price to pay" for releasing allegations against Jackson that included drunkenness, overprescribing medication and fostering a hostile work environment. Jackson denied the claims but withdrew his nomination. The Pentagon is investigating.
"Tester said things about him that were horrible and they weren't true," Trump said. "And that's probably why I'm here. Because I won Montana by so many points, I don't have to come here."
He repeated slams on key Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a possible 2020 presidential challenger, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who has called for Trump's impeachment for more than a year. And Trump also returned to the themes of his presidency, stressing his hard-line immigration policies, his support for law enforcement and his economic policies.
"If you want to protect your families and your community, then you have no choice," Trump said. "You have to vote for Republicans."
Trump launched a similar attack on Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., last week, labeling her a "liberal" though she is considered a moderate and one of the least reliably partisan Democratic votes in the Senate.
Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., received deafening applause as he opened his father's rally, quickly going on the attack against Tester and welcoming Montana Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte onto the stage.
Tester, in his ad, sought to undermine Trump's efforts to boost Rosendale by pointing out that he and the president agree on several issues.
"Welcome to Montana, and thank you President Trump for supporting Jon's legislation to help veterans and first responders, hold the VA accountable, and get rid of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government," the ad read.
The Tester campaign also planned a statewide radio ad campaign to run through the weekend touting his bills that Trump has signed.
Hundreds of people began lining up outside the arena a full eight hours before Trump was scheduled to speak. The number swelled to thousands by midday. Mechanic Shane Hegle said he drove 120 miles (195 kilometers) from his Cut Bank Home to be among the first in line.
Hegle said he voted for Tester in past elections but was undecided this time. Trump's message will influence his decision, he said.
"This is going to help a bunch," Hegle said. "I'll see what Trump has to say and how he delivers his magic words."
Montana is the latest stop on Trump's midterm campaign tour, designed to boost Republicans and advocate for his first 18 months in office. He is expected to travel throughout the summer.
Montana, which elects both Republicans and Democrats to statewide office, strongly supported Trump in the 2016 presidential election, leading both Senate candidates to compete for Trump supporters. Rosendale said he'll back Trump's agenda, while Tester said he'll support the president when it's in the state's interests and oppose him when it's not.
Tester planned to spend Thursday listening to farmers' and business owners' concerns about Trump's import tariffs, spokeswoman Marnee Banks said.