MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) – President Donald Trump continued to pull out all the stops to retain the Republicans’ narrow control in the Senate, making his third trip to Montana on Thursday night to support two House and Senate candidates and to rally the state’s Republican base ahead of the November election.
Trump arrived at Missoula County International Airport and spoke to about 8,000 people in a private hangar just steps from Air Force One.
Missoula County is a bastion of Democrats and was one of just six of Montana’s 56 counties to back Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump’s rally in Missoula was aimed at boosting support for Matt Rosendale, the Montana state auditor challenging Democratic Sen. Jon Tester for a coveted Senate seat, and to rally support for U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont.
A two-term senator, Tester has a sizable lead over Rosendale but could be vulnerable in the election. He has an 85 percent chance of winning the election, according to pollster FiveThirtyEight. Rosendale, dubbed as an outsider from Maryland with weak Montana ties, has a one in seven chance of winning, the pollster predicts.
Montana is nearly 18 percent more Republican than the nation overall, and is the 16th most Republican state in the country. Trump won 56.5 percent of the state’s votes in 2016. But the current governor Steve Bullock is a Democrat, and so was his predecessor.
Just outside Missoula, though, things turn decidedly Republican. In neighboring counties like Ravalli, Lake and Flathead, Trump won on average about 60 percent of the vote in the 2016 election and it’s that base he rallied in a rambling one-hour speech Thursday night.
The Trump rally brought out formerly closeted conservatives like Gloria Larson. She’s a retiree who said she “was tired of sucking up” to liberals in Missoula and “having to bite my lip” for the last eight years.
“I love Trump,” Larson said. “What he’s doing for our country is absolutely wonderful.”
Trump spent much of his speech attacking Democrats, the media, Hillary Clinton and Tester, in addition to the two minutes he used to talk about his hair. The scene was the typical, choreographed “Make America Great Again” circus seen dozens of times across the nation before and after Trump’s election: each time Trump mentioned Clinton or someone on his targeted list of people to hate, a chorus of boos or “lock her up, lock her up” erupted.
“Your senator is disgraceful,” Trump said of Tester and Tester’s opposition to appointing Ronnie Jackson as head of the Veteran’s Administration. “I’ll never forget what Tester did (to Jackson),” Trump said. “He was so badly hurt.”
But Tester’s camp said Rosendale is the real danger to veterans.
“Montana veterans made too many sacrifices for this country to be shoved to the sidelines by people like Matt Rosendale,” Christie Roberts, campaign manager for Montanans for Tester, said. “Rosendale racked up one of the worst records in the Legislature when it came to Montana veterans – from opposing funding for veterans homes to voting against a home assistance program for Gold Star families and scholarships for Purple Heart veterans.”
Republicans will likely retain control of the U.S. Senate, where they currently have a two-seat edge. Pollster FiveThirtyEight gives the GOP a 79.6 percent chance of keeping the Senate.
Trump also praised Rep. Gianforte for attacking a journalist prior to his election in 2017. “Any guy that can do a body slam – he’s my kind of guy,” Trump said, adding, “He’s such a wonderful guy. Never wrestle with him.”
Trump’s comment drew immediate fire from free-press advocates, who noted the remarks come in the wake of the attack and likely murder this month of another journalist at the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
“President Trump’s explicit praise for Rep. Greg Gianforte’s criminal assault on a reporter marks a startling new low in terms of the White House’s open hostility toward the press,” Anoosh Gasparian of PEN America, a journalist group, said. “During a week when the world is riveted in horror at the brutal murder of a journalist by the Saudi government, Trump’s remarks are a chilling reminder that U.S. global leadership on press freedom has collapsed utterly under the president’s watch.”
In the House race, Gianforte hopes to retain the at-large seat he narrowly won in a 2017 special election to replace Ryan Zinke, now Interior Secretary in the Trump administration. On the night of his election, Gianforte assaulted a reporter for The Guardian and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
A recent Federal Elections Committee report indicated Gianforte has spent $7.8 million while challenger Kathleen Williams spent $1.7 million.
Williams, meanwhile, is looking to be the first Montana Democrat in the House, and the first woman in the Montana at-large House seat in 77 years.
When not deriding liberals, the media or Democrats, Trump touted his accomplishments during his first two years in office. He also took responsibility for the immigration crisis. “I created this,” Trump said. “I’ve created such an economy, so many jobs, they’re just pouring in.”
He also predicted a second term in 2020. “We’re 1-0 and soon we’ll be 2-0,” he said. “Eight years is enough to make America great again.”
He added, “And isn’t that the greatest slogan ever?” to which a woman in the crowd shouted, “I love you!”
Trump zeroed in on her. “I get it from the men all the time,” Trump said. “Finally from a woman.”
He also referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D- Mass., calling her what he always calls her: Pocahontas.
“I used to say I had more Indian in me than her, and I had none,” Trump said.
Thursday’s rally was in a private airport hangar with parking nearly a mile away. That prevented protesters from showing up. But anti-Trump protesters did their work in other parts of the city. There are two large letters on mountainsides in Missoula – an L and an M – representing schools in the city. Protesters turned the “L” into “LIAR” and the M into “IMPEACH.”
And a community event called “Love Trumps Hate” drew hundreds of people on the other side of town.
“Today is the day,” said a statement from Missoula Rises. “We get to express all the fear, anger, frustration, sadness we’ve been dealing with since Nov. 9, 2016, and channel it into something powerful and constructive.
“Make no mistake, this is no kumbaya event. Love is fierce, Love is passionate, Love can create a massive change. Love trumps hate. That is what we are all about today.”
Trump’s visit to Missoula is the third he’s made to Montana in the last six months – the most of any sitting U.S. president – though one Trump supporter said his stop in Missoula was “enemy territory.”
Ron Tjaden is a retired Marriott Hotels executive who lives in the deeply Republican territory of Lake County, a conservative farming county 40 miles north of Missoula. A former chair of the Lake County Republican Committee and now its finance chair, Tjaden said public support among Republicans is deepening for Trump in conservative Lake County.
“I don’t hide it,” he said. “A lot of us are OK with Mr. Trump. This is a president we can trust, finally.”
Tjaden said his office for the Republican committee in Polson is busier than ever – even more than the 2016 elections. “There are just more people wanting to talk,” he said. “There’s a lot of silence out there who are Trump supporters.”
He added, “For the working person and entrepreneur, Trump has been a savior for them.”