BIG SANDY, Mont. — Even for a Montana grain farmer, the ripped and greasy clothes worn by Jon Tester on a typical weekend back home are a bit ragged. For a U.S. senator, they are downright grubby.
Tester is a bit of an anomaly in what has been dubbed the nation's "most exclusive club," and it's not likely he would have ever received an invitation to join on sartorial considerations alone.
Montana voters sent him to the Senate in 2006, but he flies home almost every weekend to plow his fields, fix his farm machinery and tend to his relatively modest 1,800 acre farm in the rolling hills of wheat country north of Great Falls.
The place has been in the family since 1916. The farm's dogs keep an eye Tester as he goes about his chores.
The traditional August recess — set up at a time when many in Congress were farmers — is now used by many for vacation, campaigning and constituent work. Tester, who usually has dirt under his fingernails and sports a wrinkled tie when he has to wear one, rushes back to the farm in between meetings around the state.
"He kind of always looks like he just crawled off his tractor," said James Lopach, a political scientist at the University of Montana, whose nephew works for Tester. "I think it's genuine."
Before joining the Senate, Tester, a former state legislator, said he averaged less than $30,000 a year in farm income, which he supplemented by teaching music at the local school or butchering meat — a side business that cost him three fingers on his right hand to a meat grinder. He says now has a lot more respect for machinery.
"Some years you spend all your time working and don't make much dough," Tester said of the financial rewards of farming.
On a recent Friday morning, he woke after a late flight back home to change the wheel bearing on his tractor. Rain ruined plans to prep the fields for winter wheat.
That gave him more time to have a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches — prepared by his wife Sharla — and generic soda pop with a reporter. He made it clear he would quickly give up the Senate seat before he gave up his farm, which explains the long flights from Washington, D.C., most every weekend.
"It's part of who we are, and it helps keep me sane," Tester said.
Tester is comfortable talking about politics, but his mood visibly brightens when talk turns to farm machinery, old cars or construction projects. The farm still has the original homestead buildings — along with a barn that sags a bit and looks like it is being reclaimed by the Montana mud.
"This is what we are going to do when we are done," said Tester.
Sharla Tester plays an integral role on the farm — often flying back early from Washington to get a head start on chores. She had the tractor wheel off and disassembled for the wheel bearing repair before her husband got home.
Tester faces re-election in two years. Part of the Democratic tide that reclaimed the chamber in 2006 — in part due to his razor-thin win over Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns — Tester will likely face a different political environment in 2012.
President Barack Obama will be on the ballot, and in conservative Montana there has been a lot of backlash to health care reform and government spending.
"Two years is a long, long, long time in politics," Tester said of his prospects. "I'm going to continue to get back to Montana every weekend to talk about issues that are important and call my own shots like I've done. I'm going to work like crazy to do the best job I can, as I have the last four years."
Political circles in Montana are full of speculation over who will challenge Tester, who has committed to running again.
Republicans have been hammering him for ties to Obama administration policies. Many hope that GOP U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a rancher, will challenge Tester. Neither Tester nor Rehberg has publicly addressed the possibility, but their exchanges have grown more heated.
Tester, who has started to raise money, said he can't worry about who will challenge him and that he has plenty of time to campaign.
"The fact is I would much rather work on policy and do that kind of stuff. It connects you up (to the voters)," Tester said.
Tester has split from the Obama administration on some issues, sticking with his populist roots in votes against corporate bailouts. And he continues to be vocal on gun rights issues.
He recently challenged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her agency's decision to decline South Korea's offer to sell its surplus of American-made M1 carbines back to the United States. The guns would go into the Civilian Marksmanship Program, which allows qualified citizens buy antiquated army weapons.
"I think you have to look at it from a common sense standpoint," he said. "It's not putting a weapon in a crook's hands, this is a collector's item."
He's also trying to mandate more logging out of the Forest Service, a notion that got a cool response from the administration before he persuaded them to consider the idea. It would also create a new wilderness area, and is the result of a compromise hatched by key environmentalist and logging groups.
"I'm doing it because people sat down and really collaborated," Tester said. "It's about trying to do something good. There could be a lot of jobs created."
The compromise between loggers and environmentalists could be a major re-election boon for Tester, if he gets it through the Senate next year.
Tester is just over six-feet tall and packs a lineman's weight. He loves fast-food and sports a flattop haircut. He said he doesn't take himself too seriously. During a recent trip to the dentist a woman there asked why his dog wasn't with him — mistaking him for Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who takes his dog everywhere.
"I just said, 'Nah, I left the dogs at home,'" Tester said with a big laugh.
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