Over the past month, three conservative organizations have dropped big money on ads aimed at Sen. Jon Tester. The message is to pressure him into supporting U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, but with Tester up for reelection next year, there's an added subtext that's hard to ignore—the 2018 campaign season.
The first of the ads to hit Montana televisions in February came courtesy of the Judicial Crisis Network, a Virginia-based political nonprofit that, according to its website, is dedicated to "strengthening liberty and justice in America." The spot had all the hallmarks of a campaign season attack—flashy graphics, pixelated footage, accusations about "creating gridlock" and "threatening to obstruct" Gorsuch's confirmation. JCN dropped $350,000 on the ad buy, part of a $10 million nationwide campaign that has targeted other Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018. The nonprofit Concerned Veterans for America also launched a cross-country initiative complete with Tester ad this week.
"Jon knows the Supreme Court is too important to play politics with, which is why he is concerned with the hundreds of thousands of dollars coming from dark money special interests flooding Montana's airwaves," says Tester spokesman Luke Jackson. "With his [Sunlight for Unaccountable Non-profits] Act, Jon's working to shine a little light on these dark money groups."
Tester has also found himself in the crosshairs of the Stop Hillary PAC, which rebranded itself as the Committee to Defend the President in January. The political action committee blanketed Montana with an ad in late February encouraging Tester's constituents to call their senator and urge a "yes" vote on Gorsuch. According to FEC filings, the Committee to Defend the President is also spending big on ad production and voter contact in Wisconsin, where Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin will be campaigning to keep her seat next year.
The PAC's $200,000 buy in Montana differs from the other two in-state ads in a big way: Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, was tapped as narrator. In the ad, Knudsen says he knows what it's like to "fight against Washington's war on the West," and credits Sen. Steve Daines for backing Gorsuch. "But Senator Tester," Knudsen continues, "what's he waiting for?"
Knudsen did not respond to a request for comment about his appearance in the ad.
Tester has made clear numerous times why he has yet to come out strongly on Gorsuch. He's expressed concerns about the nominee's stances on various issues including physician-assisted death, but promised to give him "a fair shake" after the two met on Feb. 6. That undecidedness is echoed by other vulnerable Democratic senators, even as liberal groups vow primary challenges against any who vote in Gorsuch's favor. Confirmation hearings begin March 20, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pressing for a full vote ahead of the Senate's Easter recess.