A Crucial Senate Race Could Come Down to One Question: Do I Trust You?

A Crucial Senate Race Could Come Down to One Question: Do I Trust You?

The rural dirt farmer versus the decorated Navy SEAL.

The longtime Democratic incumbent in a deep-red state versus the youthful conservative handpicked by Republicans to topple him.

The man who lost three fingers to a meat grinder versus the man who got shot — or maybe didn’t — in Afghanistan.

Montana’s high-profile race for Senate, which could decide the balance of power in Washington, is shaping up as a fight to see whose unique biography can best earn the trust of the state’s wary voters.

Republicans believe that the Democrat they are trying to defeat, Senator Jon Tester, 67, is vulnerable to attacks that he has lost touch with Montanans and become a Washington insider. Democrats see plenty to exploit in the background of the likely Republican nominee, Tim Sheehy, 38, a wealthy businessman and military veteran who grew up outside the state and has offered conflicting accounts of how he sustained a years-old gunshot wound.

Voters all over the country have long bristled at candidates who come across as transactional or fake. But this year, questions about authenticity have pervaded an unusually large number of Senate races as Republicans try to seize back the chamber.

Playing defense on a difficult map, Democrats have accused several Republican challengers — including Sam Brown in Nevada, Eric Hovde in Wisconsin and David McCormick in Pennsylvania — of being carpetbaggers, or having moved to their states recently for the purpose of running for office.

Montanans say that local bona fides are especially important in their rural, sparsely populated state, where outsiders are viewed with particular skepticism. In 2020, Democrats tried to paint the Republican candidate for governor, Greg Gianforte, as a “New Jersey millionaire,” and Republicans derided Kathleen Williams, a Democratic House candidate, as “California Kathleen.” Mr. Gianforte won and Ms. Williams lost.

“People, they know where your grandparents came from, they know where your uncle lives. They had kids that went to school with your cousins. Montana’s a small town with a long Main Street,” said Brian Schweitzer, a Democratic former governor of the state who is supporting Mr. Tester. “That’s who we are in Montana, and that’s why authenticity matters.”

It may be tougher to portray Mr. Tester as disingenuous. A third-generation farmer, he still farms wheat and peas on weekends away from Washington, and has fended off similar attacks in his previous re-election campaigns.

Still, Republicans are giving it their best effort. At a G.O.P. event in Missoula late last month, Donald Trump Jr. tore into Mr. Tester, suggesting that he had been “enveloped by the swamp” in Washington. Republicans say his bipartisan reputation is a ruse and that he has flip-flopped on support for the border wall. They have highlighted the hundreds of thousands of dollars his campaign has received from lobbyists, as well as a report that he had broken a years-old pledge to be transparent about his office’s meetings with lobbyists.

Janet Loran, 78, a Republican in Missoula, said Mr. Tester had once been “a good ol’ boy, farmer, rancher.” But she thought “he got corrupted by Washington, tempted by the money.”

Mr. Sheehy also faces glaring questions.

Already accused of skirting the truth in describing his upbringing as rural and his business’s origins as hardscrabble, Mr. Sheehy confronted new scrutiny in April after the revelation that he told a National Park Ranger in 2015 that a bullet stuck in his arm had been caused by him accidentally firing his gun in Glacier National Park. That account contradicted his oft-told story that he had received the wound fighting in Afghanistan in 2012.

The tale, reported in The Washington Post, put Mr. Sheehy on the defensive. He has maintained that he was injured in Afghanistan, saying that he lied to the park ranger about how and when it happened. He has said he was trying to protect his platoonmates, fearing that the bullet wound — which he did not report at the time — might have been the result of accidental friendly fire, and could have prompted a belated military investigation.

One convoluted narrative, six months out from an election, is unlikely to decide the race. But it has added a wrinkle to a larger question facing voters: Which of these candidates can I trust?

Democrats have jumped on the incident. VoteVets, a progressive group focused on veterans issues, has spent $200,000 on advertisements questioning Mr. Sheehy’s honesty, tapping Montana veterans to share their thoughts on him with other voters.

“Veterans, when they run for office, you say you’re a veteran, because automatically people know this guy has honor, he has integrity,” said Jonas Rides at the Door, a Missoula Democrat and Marine Corps veteran who works with VoteVets. “But then you can tarnish that when you start lying.”

Some supporters of Mr. Tester said the gunshot incident confirmed their suspicions about Mr. Sheehy’s character. “I think it’s bizarre,” said Henry Elsen, 68, of Whitefish. “Why couldn’t he just tell the truth?”

Republicans, and those still making up their minds about which candidate to support, said it was not an important part of their calculus.

“It’s a side distraction,” said Bob Campbell, a Republican city councilman in Missoula who said he was undecided in the Senate race.

Shad Kelly, a Republican who owns a bar on the outskirts of Missoula, said Mr. Sheehy’s past mattered less to him than his Republican principles.

“I’d rather have a carpetbagger that voted for jobs and for American values over someone who talks one way and does something different,” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Sheehy, who grew up in Minnesota, runs an aerial firefighting company and owns a stake in a cattle ranch, has downplayed other reports questioning his background, which Democrats have used to claim he is just another wealthy out-of-state transplant pretending to be a real Montanan rancher. He is betting that the gun controversy will die down, and that continuing to hammer Mr. Tester on issues like the border crisis is a winning strategy. Recent polls show the two men in a nearly even race.

At the event with Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Sheehy highlighted his military service but ignored the drama surrounding it. In an interview with a local television station a day later, he said the gunshot narrative was a “very simple story” that had been “weaponized by our opponent to smear my military record.”

According to National Park Service documents viewed by The New York Times, Mr. Sheehy met with the park ranger at an emergency room in Kalispell, Mont., in October 2015. He told the ranger that his revolver had slipped off a pile of gear in the back of his car while in a parking lot in the park, hit the ground and fired a shot into his arm. Mr. Sheehy quickly drove to a hospital for treatment and even paid a $525 fine for firing a gun in a national park.

“As a highly trained and combat experienced/wounded veteran, I can assure you that this was an unfortunate accident,” Mr. Sheehy wrote in his statement about the incident.

He told The Post a different, more complicated narrative. He said he had fallen while hiking, hit his arm on sharp rocks and went to the hospital because he worried he had broken his arm and possibly dislodged the years-old bullet. Informed that a bullet was in his arm, hospital staff members said they were required to report gunshot wounds to law enforcement, prompting the call to the ranger. Mr. Sheehy said he then made up the lie about accidentally discharging his gun.

Now both sides are engaged in a battle over voters’ perceptions of the incident. In an odd twist, Mr. Sheehy’s allies have tried to prove he was lying in 2015. They say it’s not feasible that he could have sustained a point-blank shot to the arm and been in sound enough condition to walk out of the hospital hours later, as the incident report suggests. And they point to evidence that the type of gun Mr. Sheehy had could not have fired without someone pulling the trigger.

The ranger’s report says that a park visitor called the park’s dispatch service to report the gunshot, and that the ranger initially headed to the scene before dispatch rerouted him to the hospital — details supporting the idea that Mr. Sheehy did fire a gun in the parking lot. But Republicans have defended Mr. Sheehy’s claim that he fell while hiking by noting the timeline in the report, which indicates the incident was reported more than an hour after it occurred. That delay could suggest the report was made once Mr. Sheehy reached the hospital, rather than by someone in the parking lot.

A spokeswoman for the hospital said it could not disclose Mr. Sheehy’s medical records, and the park ranger, who has voted for Mr. Tester in the past, declined to comment. Mr. Sheehy declined to be interviewed for this article. After initially telling The Post in April that he had requested his medical records from the hospital, he told Montana Public Radio this week that it was “pretty ridiculous” for him to need to produce the records.

Aaron Flint, a conservative radio show host in Montana, said the story had made Montanans more eager to vote for Mr. Sheehy.

“Tim Sheehy took a bullet for his men, then he kept quiet about it with the bullet still lodged in his arm in order to protect the men serving alongside him,” Mr. Flint said. “I think Montanans and veterans have even more respect for him after that.”

Mr. Tester’s camp, of course, sees it differently.

“This race is between a third-generation Montana dirt farmer,” Shelbi Dantic, Mr. Tester’s campaign manager, said in a statement, “and a multimillionaire transplant who has been caught lying to Montanans about who he is.”

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