Montana Sen. Jon Tester says Democrats’ message to rural voters is ‘really, really flawed’

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The Democratic Party should step up its efforts to connect with rural voters who have gravitated toward President Trump and other Republican candidates in recent years, Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester said in an interview published Wednesday.

Montana leaned heavily toward the GOP during the 2020 election cycle. State residents voted to re-elect Republican Sen. Steve Daines despite a challenge from popular former Gov. Steve Bullock. Trump won Montana by more than 16 percentage points.

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Tester, who is serving his third term in the Senate, told the New York Times that there was "no denying" that Trump "has an appeal to rural America." The Democratic senator argued that his party’s message to rural voters is "really, really flawed."

U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) arrives for U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis/POOL - HP1EG250DAMEK

U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) arrives for U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis/POOL – HP1EG250DAMEK (Reuters)

"We do not have a — what do I want to say — a well-designed way to get our message out utilizing our entire caucus. So we need to do more of that," Tester said. "You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people; it ain’t gonna sell. And quite frankly, I don’t know that you can have Jon Tester go talk to a bunch of rich people and tell them what they need to be doing."

The GOP trimmed the Democrats’ majority in the House with a better-than-expected performance in down-ballot races during the 2020 election cycle. The outcome of Georgia’s upcoming runoff races will determine which party controls the Senate. The Democrats need to win both races to secure a 50-50 tie.

Tester said that a decision to dial back in-person campaign events during the coronavirus pandemic may have contributed to the Democrats’ underperformance.

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"I think showing up is a fundamental rule of politics, and I don’t know that we showed up. Because of Covid, we didn’t show up on the campaign trail. And in a state like Montana, you have to give people a reason to vote for you or they’ll vote Republican — they’ll default to Republican," Tester said. "And I think that hurt us greatly in 2020. The Republicans, for the most part, didn’t see the pandemic as near as a threat to health as some of the Democrats did."

Tester also criticized his party’s failure to condemn instances of rioting that occurred alongside nationwide protests against police brutality in recent months. He referred to calls to defund the police as "not just bad messaging, but just insane" for Democrats.

The senator argued that "Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America" by focusing on infrastructure projects and education reform.

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