EXCLUSIVE — Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-MT) challenger in the Montana Senate race sees the three-term Democrat as vulnerable on a topic that has become red meat for conservatives the last few years — drag queen story hours.
Tim Sheehy, a wealthy businessman recruited by Republican leadership to run for Tester’s seat, is airing a new ad, titled “Reporting for Duty,” that plays into his background as a retired Navy SEAL.
“We need strong, conservative leaders who know how to defend America. We need Tim Sheehy,” says the voiceover.
The 30-second spot, running statewide as part of a six-figure ad buy in Montana, paints the picture of an America exploited by Mexican drug cartels and at risk of being drawn into a conflict with a rising China.
Keeping the country safe, Sheehy suggests in the ad, means banning drag queen story hours and other “woke crap” from the military.
The refrain is a common one from conservatives. A handful of military bases have hosted or planned to host drag performances, including a story hour at Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, Montana.
The three Republicans in Montana’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the Pentagon in March arguing such “divisive” events hurt recruitment and damage “cohesion and morale” in the military, but Tester did not address the matter.
His “silence,” as the National Republican Senatorial Committee puts it, has become political fodder, and even before Sheehy entered the race in June, he signaled it would be a focal point of his candidacy. He concludes the ad by saying Tester is “AWOL.”
The Tester campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats have generally ignored the issue as a manufactured controversy, and Pentagon leaders, facing Republican backlash, have since banned drag performances at military installations.
“Drag shows are not something that the Department of Defense supports or funds,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said earlier this year.
But the topic, and culture war issues more broadly, could drive turnout in a decidedly red state like Montana. Former President Donald Trump won there by 16 points in 2020.
Montana is one of three states Senate Republicans view as must-win next year as they fight to reclaim a 51-49 Senate. Tester has survived two other reelection bids on the strength of his reputation as a plain-speaking farmer who occasionally bucks the party line.
He beat Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) in 2018 by 3 percentage points, and his race is rated “lean Democrat” by Cook Political Report, but national Republicans are expected to invest heavily in unseating Tester.
Warding off another run by Rosendale is seen as important to that effort, though the congressman has not ruled out entering the Republican primary.