White House doctor and naval officer Ronny Johnson withdrew his nomination to be the next secretary of Veterans Affairs on Thursday, following bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill over accusations that he drank on the job, improperly dispensed medication, and verbally abused co-workers. Donald Trump wasted no time assigning blame for the fiasco to a Democratic senator.
In a phone interview with Fox News shortly after Johnson formally withdrew, Trump took direct aim at Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, whose staff released an explosive two-page document fleshing out the accusations against Johnson on Wednesday, effectively dooming his nomination. The president accused Tester of using “completely false and fabricated” claims to smear the reputation of “an incredible man” and warned that he will “have a big price to pay” this November when he’s up for re-election. “I watch what Jon Tester, of Montana—a state that I won by, like, over 20 points, you know, really, they love me and I love them,” Trump told Fox & Friends. “And I want to tell you that Jon Tester, I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state.”
Just how worried should Tester be?
Trump won Montana by a hair more than 20 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016, 56.2 percent to 35.7, and he remains relatively popular there. According to Gallup, the president’s average approval rating in the state during his first year in office was 52 percent—one of only nine states where it topped 50 percent. Republican Greg Gianforte won last year’s special election for the state’s at-large House seat after more or less pledging allegiance to Trump, who then sent his son Donald Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence to the state to push Gianforte across the finish line. The man Gianforte replaced in Congress, Ryan Zinke, is currently Trump’s secretary of the interior, a position he has used to bestow preferential treatment on his home state.
Still, Montana isn’t as dark red as its neighbors. The state has voted for the GOP nominee in every presidential nomination since 1992, but a Democrat has occupied the governor’s mansion in Helena since 2005, and it’s been more than a century since the state didn’t have at least one Democratic senator. Tester, meanwhile, has already won statewide office twice, albeit narrowly. He claimed his first Senate term in 2006 by less than one point over GOP incumbent Conrad Burns and then won his second term six years later by four points over Denny Rehberg, then the state’s at-large representative in the U.S. House. This year, Tester will face whoever emerges from a crowded GOP primary, where the front-runner is doing his best to hide his Maryland accent and the rest of the challengers have their own flaws. As one of 10 Democratic senators up for re-election in a state Trump won, Tester is considered vulnerable in November, but nonpartisan handicappers don’t believe he is as vulnerable as some of his colleagues, like Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, or Joe Donnelly in Indiana.
Before he went to battle over Jackson’s nomination, Tester had tried to navigate a middle ground with regard to the president. His first re-election ad highlighted 13 bills he backed that Trump signed into law—as well as the three fingers Tester lost in a childhood accident with a meat saw—even as Tester broke with the president on some high-profile priorities. He began the year by voting against the stopgap spending bill to end a three-day government shutdown, making him the only Democrat in a state Trump won to do so. And just this week, he announced he’d vote against Mike Pompeo for secretary of state over concerns the CIA director will be too eager for war, a decision that put him at odds with Heitkamp, Manchin, and Donnelly, and one that is unlikely to stop Pompeo from being confirmed.
For his part, Tester did his best on Thursday to keep the focus on the veterans and off the president, a move that suggests he’d rather avoid a prolonged fight with Trump in an election year. “I want to thank the service members who bravely spoke out over the past week,” he said in a statement following Johnson’s withdrawal. “It is my constitutional responsibility to make sure the veterans of this nation get a strong, thoroughly vetted leader who will fight for them.”
It seems unlikely the abandoned VA nomination will have much political staying power in itself, particularly in a state like Montana where nearly one in 10 residents is a military veteran, and with Tester framing the fight as protecting those vets against a clearly unqualified nominee. The bigger question is whether Trump will stay mad at Tester for the next six months. If the president goes on the warpath against him, steering the middle ground will get much more difficult.