During his first run for Senate, Montana Democrat Jon Tester condemned lawmakers who hire lobbyists, saying that the "revolving door is going to stop with me." Years later, Tester is seeking his fourth term in the upper chamber—with a former lobbyist leading his campaign.
Tester on April 4 said he "couldn't be prouder" to hire former lobbyist Shelbi Dantic as his campaign manager. Dantic from 2015 to 2017 lobbied for Montana Conservation Voters, a climate nonprofit that works to transition the U.S. economy "away from oil and gas," disclosures reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon show. Dantic's former employer applauded the move just hours after Tester's announcement, saying it was "DELIGHTED" to see Dantic "leading the way to reelect" Tester.
Tester's decision to tap a former lobbyist to run his reelection bid contradicts the rhetoric that helped him get to the Senate in the first place. During his inaugural 2006 Senate campaign, Tester hammered his Republican opponent for hiring lobbyists, calling the practice "not right." Tester even committed to a self-imposed ethics pledge, which saw him promise that any former lobbyist on his staff would be banned from working with his or her prior employer. "The fact is we have a mess back in Washington, D.C., right now because we do not have honest and ethical people back there," Tester said at the time. "That revolving door is going to stop with me. I put forth an ethics plan that says, 'No more.’"
As Tester's campaign manager, however, Dantic will almost certainly work with Montana Conservation Voters. The group endorsed Tester in 2012 and 2018, and its national affiliate—the League of Conservation Voters—routinely funnels tens of thousands of dollars to the Democrat's campaign. Last month, meanwhile, Tester headlined the Montana Conservation Voters' Annual Member Celebration, an event that saw him heap praise on the environmental group. "I'm proud to stand with MCV in the fight to keep our state the Last Best Place," the Democrat said. "We can always count on them to do what's right for the Treasure State."
This is far from the first time Tester, whose campaign did not return a request for comment, has broken his own ethics pledge. In his first decade in the Senate, Tester hired at least six former lobbyists, while 15 of his staff members left his office to join lobbying firms. Nine of those 15 staffers lobbied in favor of legislation that Tester sponsored or cosponsored, National Review reported in 2018. Tester took more than $600,000 from lobbyists that year, a total that only Pennsylvania Democratic senator Bob Casey Jr. topped.
More than 15 years after he first joined the Senate, Tester is still presenting himself as an outsider who fights the D.C. status quo. Tester's official website, for example, calls the Democrat a "tireless defender of rural America and the Montana way of life," and Tester has long insisted that he would rather cook with ingredients from his Montana farm than enjoy D.C.'s many fine dining establishments.
But Tester's campaign spending does not match his everyman image. Since 2006, the Democrat's campaign and leadership PAC have dropped more than a million dollars at swanky restaurants, the Free Beacon reported in March. One of Tester's favorites, a French restaurant on Capitol Hill called Bistro Bis, boasts of its "ambiance and luxury" and status as a meeting place for "senators, congressmen, celebrities, and powerbrokers."
Still, Tester should have no problem funding those lavish expenditures. The Democrat in March held a big-ticket fundraiser in Silicon Valley, which saw him rake in thousands of dollars from tech entrepreneurs and green energy activists.
Democrats have struggled in Montana in recent years, making Tester a top Republican target as the party looks to flip control of the Senate in 2024. Republicans Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte both cruised to double-digit wins in their respective 2020 campaigns for senator and governor, and Republicans secured a supermajority in the state legislature two years later.