Sen. Jon Tester embodies Montana.


There’s nothing glamorous about the inside of Billings Skyview High School. The 1980s-style brick walls, rectangular fluorescent ceiling lights and beige tiled floors are more than anything a reflection of a John Hughes movie set, but as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester makes his way from one end of the school to the other, its main hallway becomes somewhat of a red carpet. The facility is hosting the 2023 educator conference for the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE), so instead of unenthused teenagers with backpacks slung over one shoulder, the building is full of teachers and school administrators following the senator around in a magnetic cluster.

Tester isn’t wearing anything especially identifying; he just arrived last night from D.C. and quickly traded his suit coat and tie for a blue Carhartt button-up long sleeve and jeans. Yet he’s undeniably recognizable, especially thanks to the signature flat-top hairdo he’s sported at least since he first ran for federal office in 2006. It’s a little thinner on the top than it was back then, giving away his 67 years, but his pace yields nothing to age as he charges through another bell-to-bell workday with focus, presence and energy.

It’s not even 10 a.m. and I’m already wilting. But not the senator. By the time I met him at his Billings office at 8 a.m., he’d already made an early-morning appearance on Billings’ CBS affiliate, KQTV, and has done God knows what else since then. Though in the interview I got the feeling he would’ve regaled us all day with the personal stories and reflections on public office, his staff politely ushered him to his next obligation here at the educator conference by 9 a.m. Next comes the press conference at 11 a.m., and then finally his four-hour drive home to Big Sandy in northern Montana, where his wife, Sharla, and their farm await him, just as they do every weekend.

He’s almost made it to the end of the hallway at Skyview when a teenager comes running from the opposite direction. As he nears, I realize he’s wearing a Jon Tester shirt, and unsurprisingly, a googly-eyed expression. The senator is finishing a conversation with a principal-looking type, so the kid paces around them, anxiously awaiting his turn. Tester looks up and immediately acknowledges the young man and his shirt with an open-mouthed smile.

“Well I like you!” Tester says to him, laughing.

The boy, Gabe Bradshaw, a sweet and nervous 16-year-old from Lockwood, Montana, shakes Tester’s hand for a second longer than is normal. “I’m so proud to meet you,” he says. They chat for a minute, mostly about Bradshaw’s shirt. “I just got it yesterday and haven’t taken it off yet,” he tells me. Tester thanks him for the support, ostensibly making Bradshaw’s day even better, and continues down the hall, leaving Bradshaw in a star-struck stupor.

Because of the conference there’s no school today and no other students in sight, but Bradshaw is here volunteering for the Yellowstone County Democrats booth, which is where he was when he got wind of the senator’s guest appearance.

“They said ‘Senator Tester’s out there’ and I literally jumped and ran out here,” he says. I don’t think he’s exaggerating—he’s still out of breath.

Freeze the frame on Bradshaw, because this is the point. In the less-than four hours I spent with the senator on this day, I witnessed more of these interactions than I could keep up with in my notebook. People are drawn to him, not in the way you might expect of a political figure, but in a deeply personal way, and more importantly, in a uniquely far-reaching way. This is made more intriguing by the fact that Montana’s political atmosphere—and subsequently, its culture—is shifting by anecdotal and statistical measures.

The state that has long been known for its affinity for locally rooted representatives has an extensive record of electing them based on issues and character more than party affiliation. But the 2022 election revealed a break in the page, where forecasters were shaken by a statewide red wave in a place that often splits its ticket with the majority voting for a Republican president but otherwise mostly favoring Democrats. Montana’s politics are becoming more and more nationalized, and fewer and farther between are the candidates that harness a bipartisan following painted with Montana values more so than blue or red. In this way, Tester arguably represents a dying breed of Montana politician. Recent news stories are calling Tester the exception to a trend of declining favorability ratings among other incumbent Democrats across the country running for contentious reelections. There’s something different about Montana’s three-term senator. This is what I set out to understand on this trip to Billings: The Tester appeal.

Tester (right) introduces young hunter Even Truhalla during an Oct. 20, 2023 press conference near Billings, Montana, where the senator celebrated a recently passed bill protecting the use of federal resources for hunter education courses. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY
Tester (right) poses with 16-year-old Gabe Bradshaw, a high schooler from Lockwood, Montana, and a Tester supporter. PHOTO COURTESY OF GABE BRADSHAW

Tester farms grain, peas and lentils—yes, present tense. While working as a senator, he still tends to his farm. Even after his busy day in Billings and a full week in Washington, he says he’s got to get home to unload and clean a bunch of peas. It’s who he is, he says.

Tester’s senate seat will be up for grabs in the 2024 election, and he’s among four candidates bidding for it. Though as of Mountain Outlaw press time no other Democrats have stepped forward to challenge Tester in the primary election this coming spring, he’s revving up the engine of his campaign. I’ve received at least a dozen texts from his campaign since he announced he was running for re-election in February of 2023—mostly near fundraising deadlines—and his ads have started to pop up on my TV, phone and computer.

One of his most recent ads places him in his 605-person hometown of Big Sandy, driving a pickup truck on a road surrounded by golden farm fields and eventually down the town’s quaint main street. “Folks back in Washington and even some folks moving here don’t understand, or frankly don’t care, about what’s happening out here,” Tester says in the ad. “I’m defending our way of life with everything I’ve got.” Politico noted the comparatively early timing on the release in a story headlined, “The first Senate Democrat is going on the airwaves with a 2024 ad.” The subtitle: “Jon Tester touts his three- generations-deep roots in Montana and bemoans rising costs and loss of access to public lands.” And therein lies a critical piece of the Tester appeal—the Montana effect.

Political battles in the state often come down to a grueling debate on one core issue: who’s more Montana? Candidates spar with their generational heritage, where three is better than two, and four is better than three. And sometimes, they call each other on a farce, like in the often quoted “all hat, no cattle” campaign Tester’s team ran against 2018 Republican challenger Matt Rosendale.

In Tester’s case, it’s hard to dispute his authenticity. Tester’s relationship with Montana begins with his grandfather, who made his way from North Dakota’s Red River Valley to Montana in 1912, when “the grass was as tall as the belly of a horse.”

“They broke the land with horses and tried to make a living,” as Tester tells the story. “And of course they had insects and drought, and everything else that happened over the next decade forced them back to North Dakota for a while. I mean, they were starving to death, they didn’t have any safety net programs, they didn’t have what we have today. If you couldn’t feed your family, your family went hungry.” That first generation of Montana Testers made it back to Montana from North Dakota in the ’20s, and eventually handed it down to the second generation when Tester’s parents took over the farm in the ’40s.

“They worked hard, they set up a butcher shop—well, they cut meat in their basement for a while—and then in the early ’60s they set up a butcher shop and got meat to add value to make their income work, to be able to send their kids to college and all that stuff. And then we were able to follow in that tradition,” Tester said. And so began the third chapter of the farming Testers.

Tester works on his farm in Big Sandy, where he grows peas, lentils and grain. PHOTO COURTESY OF SEN. JON TESTER
With the help of his wife Sharla Tester, third generation farmer Tester repairs his cultivator on his 1,800 acre farm in Big Sandy, Montana on Thursday April 13, 2017. PHOTO BY MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

“I think [the Montana way of life is] where people work together. I think it’s where people understand the value of community. Where it’s not about me, it’s about we. Where it’s your word is your bond and a handshake means something. I think it’s
seeing somebody on the street that you don’t know and have a smile and say ‘ hi.’ That’s the Montana I know.”
– Jon Tester

Never mind that Tester studied music in Great Falls, or that he worked as a teacher; he sealed his fate in farming at an early age. “I was 8 years old when I decided to run the farm,” Tester recounts. “I told my folks I wanted to do this. My folks said ‘Ah yeah, yeah right,’ but the truth is that’s what I wanted to do.”

Tester farms grain, peas and lentils—yes, present tense.

While working as a senator, he still tends to his farm. Even after his busy day in Billings and a full week in Washington, he says he’s got to get home to unload and clean a bunch of peas. It’s who he is, he says. And he’s said it before.

“He told me that when he built his current house on the property, he oriented it at an angle so that the views would capture the limitless prairie encircling it, rather than a picturesque set of mountain peaks in the distance,” wrote Nicholas Fandos for The New York Times in 2018. “The prairie, he said, was what he’d come from and how he’d made his living.” To an outside viewer, Big Sandy’s greatest claim to fame might be Tester himself—a sign proudly boasts so upon entering town—but Tester thinks otherwise. To him, he’s just a part of a really important story that runs generations deep. While he speaks fondly of his work in Congress, he asserts farming is the best job he’s ever had.

I ask him about the separation of these roles; how he parses out the senator from the farmer from the husband and the grandfather. His answer is quick and, in retrospect, obvious as the thread that holds together his identity.

“Well, I hope there isn’t any difference.”

An aerial photo shows Tester’s home town of Big Sandy. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER BOYER

When Tester leaves Skyview, a ripple of energy follows him. Perhaps it was the way MTFPE President Amanda Curtis introduced him to a room of teachers as “Jon Fucking Tester,” or the way people whispered things like “I heard Jon Tester’s here,” as they passed in the hallway, but it feels like we’re leaving a concert where Bruce Springsteen just crowd surfed.

Our next stop with the senator is north on Montana Highway 3 near the Billings-Logan International Airport. My colleagues and I arrive at a house surrounded by rolling golden hills and backdropped by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The property is owned by Barbara Skelton and Paul Gatzemeier, who founded a nonprofit that offers equine therapy to veterans. Skelton tells us her family homesteaded in the state a few decades before the Testers, and she too has long been involved in state politics, with a ballot appearance as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor alongside Thomas Lee Judge in 1988. Today, she and Gatzemeier are loaning their land to Tester for a press conference. I suppose the senator keeps fitting company.

Tester arrives a while after us, as do a handful of reporters from various Montana outlets. Tester’s Montana press secretary hustles a mobile podium from his car out to the field while Tester speaks informally with Darrell Ehrlick, editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, about current events in Washington. It’s Oct. 20, and the U.S. House of Representatives is paralyzed without a speaker of the house as the conflict between Israel and Hamas is brewing into what will undoubtedly be a merciless war. Tester greets everyone around him with the dutiful friendliness of a Montana neighbor, but he carries the weight of what he earlier described to me as “a particularly dangerous time.” He makes his way to the podium, and I watch a little bit more of that D.C. senator inhabit him before he turns it on.

“This is a beautiful day in the greatest state in the greatest country in the world, and we ought never take that for granted,” he begins. “So it’s Oct. 20. You know what that means? Tomorrow starts [general deer and elk] hunting season.”

Yes, D.C. is in a fragile state, and yet another war is imminent, but Tester’s here today to talk about hunting. More specifically, he’s celebrating his bipartisan legislation protecting the use of federal funds for hunter safety and sport shooting classes, which President Joe Biden signed into law earlier in the month. The law was in response to the Department of Education’s interpretation of 2022’s gun safety law, which bans funding for “training in the use of a dangerous weapon.”

Tester, chairman of the Senate’s Veteran Affairs Committee, holds a press conference in Washington D.C. in February of 2023 to discuss his bill that would provide full military benefits to veterans injured in combat. PHOTO COURTESY OF SEN. JON TESTER
Tester addresses a crowd gathered on the banks of the Gallatin River in October of 2020 while announcing his intention to sponsor the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Tester invites his guests up to the mic to speak further on the topic, including Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Board Member Jake Schwaller; and young Montana hunter Even Trewhalla, who is dressed in his hunting attire. The whole thing is a bit theatrical, with the prairie podium and camo-clad teenager, but it conveys a clear point the senator is often trying to make: Amidst the echoes of national politics bouncing from headline to headline, Sen. Jon Tester has not forgotten about Montana. There’s no doubt he’s plugged in to broader issues at the Capitol—he brings up concern for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin more than once—but he’s deliberate in putting his identity as a Montanan out in front of him at all times. He made the decision almost two decades ago, after serving two terms in the Montana Legislature and a lifetime of farming, that the best way to work on behalf of the state he loves so dearly was to take a job 2,000 miles away.

“I knew fully well, because of my experience in the state legislature, that I can do things on my farm that can make the world a better place. But I could do things in Helena that can make the world [an even] better place, and a lot better place in Washington, D.C. because whether people understand or not, just about everything we do in Washington, D.C. affects everybody in this country,” Tester said.

Impact notwithstanding, he’s quick to admit that D.C. is a hell of a lot different than Montana. He repeats the word bipartisan until it plays like his theme song, and he hangs his head while lamenting the country’s—and the state’s— increasing polarization. Yet he attests that the Montana he knows has much to teach us. He talks about learning to work together in Washington in the same breath as he tells the story of his grandfather building their barn with the help of his neighbors.

An old friend of Tester’s, a fellow third-generation Montanan and the president of the Montana Farmers Union, Walter Schweitzer echoes Tester’s woes. “I used to be able to go to community events, coffee shops, and have civil debates,” Schweitzer told me in a Nov. 1 interview. “I love debates and I think a good debate is when you learn something from the other person, and we’ve lost that civility. It’s like people are having the debates with earmuffs on.” To him, Tester represents the Montana he feels is slipping away. I asked Schweitzer what he thought of the Tester appeal. Where does it come from?

“He’s a real Montanan,” he said.

In the campaign battle for authenticity, I do my due diligence as a reporter and consider whether it’s all real—the farm motifs and metaphors, the pictures of Sharla’s pies on his campaign Instagram, the TV ads showcasing his old pickup and the images of him elbow deep in machinery. What I keep coming back to is this moment at the end of our interview when I asked him about his frequent claim of being a “defender of the Montana way of life.” What does “Montana way of life” mean?

“Well, I think it’s where people work together,” he said, not missing a beat. “I think it’s where people understand the value of community. Where it’s not about me, it’s about we. Where it’s your word is your bond and a handshake means something. I think it’s seeing somebody on the street that you don’t know and have a smile and say ‘hi.’ That’s the Montana I know.”

I think about the sureness in his voice when he said this and the silence in the room, and the farm stories and the pickup truck and the Carhartt shirt give way to something else. Maybe the Tester appeal isn’t any of those purported symbols of
“real Montana.”

Maybe the Tester appeal is the embodiment of the Montana we all want to believe in.

BELLA BUTLER is the managing editor for Mountain Outlaw.