Tester Rally, Yellowstone Mining

In this file photo, Sen. Jon Tester speaks at a March rally to build support for a new Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act that would prevent mining on public lands north of Yellowstone National Park.

The announcement of a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court triggered a wave of statements from Montana’s elected officials Monday night, some signaling support and others not yet showing their cards.

The nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, will now seek Senate confirmation, setting up a vote that will likely be tough for Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is up for re-election this fall. He indicated neither support nor opposition for Kavanaugh in an emailed statement Monday night.

“I take my Constitutional duty to screen the President’s nominees very seriously, and in the coming weeks I look forward to meeting with Judge Kavanaugh,” Tester said. “Montanans have a lot on the line with this next Supreme Court Justice, so I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to put politics aside and do what’s best for this nation.”

Meanwhile, his Republican opponent Matt Rosendale went on the offensive, issuing a statement that threw support behind Kavanaugh and attacked Tester for having supported former President Barack Obama’s nominees to the high court but not Justice Neil Gorsuch, the first person nominated to the court by President Donald Trump.

“Jon Tester now has to decide; does he side with the far left in Washington or with Montana?” Rosendale said. “I’ll stand with the people of Montana and President Trump to support Kavanaugh’s nomination because there is no doubt that he will defend our Constitution and protect our Montana way of life.”

Tester is one of several Democrats in the Senate up for re-election this fall in states Trump carried in 2016, and each race will be important in shaping the Senate majority for the next two years. Republicans would like to flip some of those seats to gain a larger majority while Democrats would need to hold onto each of their seats and gain two more to control the chamber.

A Tester victory would require the support of some voters who supported Trump. His campaign has tried to tie him to Trump by bragging about the bills of his that the president has signed. But he has also been attacked from the right for torpedoing the nomination of Ronny Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs and for opposing Gorsuch, and opposition to Kavanaugh would set up another attack line for his opponents.

“This will be a vote he will have to navigate carefully,” said Jeremy Johnson, a professor of political science at Carroll College.

Tester’s vote against Gorsuch isn’t a guarantee that he’ll ultimately oppose Kavanaugh. But Johnson said Kavanaugh, a former Bush administration official and current federal appeals court judge, has a more controversial record than Gorsuch and that he doesn’t see a reason that Tester would view him more favorably.

“It doesn’t seem like he would be more likely to vote for this nominee,” Johnson said.

How his vote will impact his electoral chances will depend on how important the issue is to voters. Johnson said voters committed to one party generally consider the court to be a more important issue than swing voters — the ones Tester has a chance to win.

“The question is who truly are the swing voters? How much do they care about this issue?” he said.

In addition to Rosendale, Tester faces Libertarian Rick Breckenridge, of Dayton.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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