During his second Senate run, Jon Tester promised Montanans that, unlike his opponent, he wouldn't depend upon lobbyists to make decisions. Now internal emails show the Democrat is letting lobbyists write his legislation.
Hemp industry lobbyists both proposed and crafted a bill Tester introduced in March to change regulations in a way that benefits industrial hemp farmers, according to private emails obtained by Politico. While the practice isn't necessarily uncommon on Capitol Hill, Tester's willingness to let industry lobbyists shape their own regulations runs counter to the campaign rhetoric that sent him to the Senate in the first place. Tester in 2012 hammered his GOP opponent for relying on lobbyists to make legislative decisions, something the Democrat swore he would not do.
"We've got congressman [Denny] Rehberg, who … depends upon lobbyists for the decisions he makes on this country," Tester said during an October 2012 debate. "I depend upon Montanans. There's where the difference is."
Tester has used his everyman, outsider image to win three Senate elections in Montana, a state that backed former president Donald Trump by double digits in both 2016 and 2020. That image, however, is beginning to deteriorate as Tester seeks a fourth term. During his inaugural Senate bid, for example, Tester said it's "not right" for lawmakers to hire lobbyists as staff. The Democrat in April tapped a former lobbyist to lead his campaign. Tester was also Congress's top recipient of lobbyist cash in 2018, and his campaign has spent more than a million dollars at swanky Beltway restaurants since 2006, despite Tester's insistence that he prefers to eat at home with meat from his Montana farm.
Still, those moves haven't stopped Tester from portraying himself as a "tireless defender of rural America and the Montana way of life" who "stands up to special interests" and "holds all of Washington accountable." Those declarations fall flat under scrutiny, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Maggie Abboud said.
"Jon Tester is a shameless pay-to-play politician who rakes in millions from Washington lobbyists while allowing them to write his bills almost word-for-word," Abboud said in a statement. "Montanans need an independent voice in Washington, not a swamp creature like Jon Tester."
Tester, whose campaign did not return a request for comment, downplayed the hemp industry's role in crafting his March bill. A staff member told Politico that Tester simply took "feedback" from "Montana small business owners." But emails show a registered lobbyist for a top U.S. hemp company contacted Tester's office in February with a "draft bill" that the Democrat later introduced. A Montana Department of Agriculture attorney who also received the draft bill said the hemp industry "definitely wrote some of the language." And an aide to Indiana Republican senator Mike Braun, who cosponsored the legislation with Tester, said Braun was uncomfortable with the lobbyist work on the bill.
"Our chief of staff called the chair of one of these advocacy groups to tell them we were negotiating directly with the other office and told them frankly we did not want them involved in our process," the aide told Politico.
Tester in February launched his bid for a fourth Senate term, saying Montanans "need a fighter holding Washington accountable." His campaign has raised more than $5 million in 2023—top contributors include United Parcel Service and former Obama White House "fixer" Jim Messina. Tester has not yet attracted a top-tier GOP opponent, but a number of Montana Republicans are reportedly weighing Senate bids, including state attorney general Austin Knudsen and Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale.