Sen. Jon Tester Backhandedly Accused His Opponent Of Turning Montana Into A Millionaire’s Playground

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) wasted no time painting his Republican opponent, Tim Sheehy, as a threat to public lands and the Montana way of life during the first debate of what is widely seen as one of the most contested races in 2024. 

The three-term incumbent said “Montana’s values are on the line” in November.

“The bottom line is Montana is changing. We’re seeing a lot of folks come into the state — rich folks — who want to try to buy our state, to try to change it into something it’s not,” Tester said. “Unfortunately, many of these folks are coming in, they’re buying big ranches. They’re locking people off of not only that ranch, but the public lands around it. And that’s not what Montana is about.” 

It was one of many subtle jabs Tester took at Sheehy during the event on Sunday, which came just days after both candidates cruised to victory in their respective primaries. 

“Folks are coming in here and buying two, three houses, making this into their personal playground. That’s not right,” Tester said, adding that when it comes to Montana’s housing crisis, Sheehy is part of the problem. 

Sheehy swung back at Tester’s repeated jabs at him for being an outsider.

“Well, you heard it again — if you come here from out of state, you’re part of the problem,” Sheehy said. “If you’re not from here, Jon Tester doesn’t think your voice matters, apparently.”

Three-term Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is facing a challenge from ex-Navy SEAL and wealthy businessman Tim Sheehy.
Three-term Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is facing a challenge from ex-Navy SEAL and wealthy businessman Tim Sheehy. Tom Williams via Getty Images

A pro-Donald Trump conservative and decorated ex-Navy SEAL, Sheehy moved to Montana in 2014 after retiring from the military, and he built a successful aerial firefighting company. With his wealth, Sheehy has purchased multimillion-dollar properties on Flathead Lake and in the lavish resort community of Big Sky. In 2020, he purchased three contiguous ranches, spanning some 7,000 acres, in Martinsdale, Montana, and co-founded the Little Belt Cattle Company. 

While Little Belt’s primary business is cattle ranching across its approximately 30,000 private and leased acres, it has also offered exclusive, pay-to-play hunting access.

As NBC News reported, Little Belt contracted with a private outfitter to sell paid hunting excursions and chose not to participate in a state program that allows free public hunting. In a now-deleted listing on LandTrust, a network that connects outdoor recreationists to private landowners, Little Belt touted itself as a “premier destination for hunters” with “private access to over 500,000 acres of National Forest.” In 2022, the ranch was offering what the Montana Free Press identifiedas “the most spendy package currently available in Montana” — a five-day, five-person archery hunt costing $12,500.

Shortly after NBC’s story on Sheehy’s ranch was published, Little Belt deleted a section of its website that advertised the ranch’s “impressive game” and its five-mile border with U.S. Forest Service land. 

“If you want a Montana that continues to be a place where people can continue to hunt and fish without being millionaires, this election is really important,” Tester said Sunday. 

The debate did not include a question specifically about the candidates’ position on public lands, but both spoke of their importance when asked about Montanans’ hesitancy to embrace outsiders and tourism. 

“Tourism is a part of our economy. That’s never going to go away,” Sheehy said, adding that it’s important for Montanans to make sure tourists are “respecting our values, they’re respecting our public lands, and we don’t turn Montana into California or New York or Texas.”

Tester said tourism is vital to the Montana economy but stressed the state is under increased pressure from rich transplants working to shape it in ways Montanans don’t approve of.

“I think we need to push back against that,” he said. “We get folks who buy ranches and lock it up to hunters and charge people 10,000 bucks to go hunting on their place — that’s a nonstarter. When you have folks who want to sell off our public lands … that’s a nonstarter. We have to preserve the Montana we know.”

Sheehy secured the Republican nomination to take on Tester last week. It is one of the most contested races in 2024.
Sheehy secured the Republican nomination to take on Tester last week. It is one of the most contested races in 2024. Tim Sheehy for Montana

Along with previously marketing his ranch as an exclusive destination for deep-pocketed hunters, Sheehy recently embraced a toxic position on public lands. As HuffPost reported last year, the multi-millionaire businessman advocated for federal lands to be “turned over” to states — a position that voters in Western states, including Montana, overwhelmingly oppose. 

“Local control has to be returned,” Sheehy told the Working Ranch Radio Show in October. “Whether that means, you know, some of these public lands get turned over to state agencies, or even counties, or whether those decisions are made by a local landlord instead of by, you know, federal fiat a few thousand miles away.”

Sheehy and his campaign have been doing damage control ever since his comments drew national attention. On a section of his campaign website titled “Get the Facts,” Sheehy accuses Tester and his allies of lying about Sheehy’s support for public lands and writes that while he opposes the sale and transfer of federal lands, he believes “Montanans know best how to manage our land.” 

Tester did not specifically highlight Sheehy’s previous comments in favor of transferring public lands during Sunday’s debate. But in a post on X, formerly Twitter, shared during the event, Tester painted his opponent as a threat to the federal estate. 

“Montana is not for sale,” Tester wrote. “If @SheehyforMT wants to carve up our public lands and sell them off, he’ll have to go through me first.”

On Sunday, Sheehy sought to convince Montana voters that he’s been a longtime champion of public lands and that it is environmentalists who threaten their future.

“My job is protecting public lands. I fight fires from the air,” he said, referring to his Bozeman, Montana, aerial firefighting company, Bridger Aerospace. “Right now, we’re looking at a public lands crisis across our nation. We have public lands that are being walled off. We have lawsuits stopping any potential timber development, controlled burns or basic public access projects because they will be injuncted. There will be lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit.” 

As in past Montana elections, public lands will likely prove to be a key issue in this race. Montana Outdoor Values Action Fund, a super political action committee of environmental group Montana Conservation Voters, recently released a statewide TV ad that features “Private Property” signs and warns that if Sheehy were elected, Montanans could lose access to more of their favorite hunting and fishing spots. (The ad cites previous HuffPost reporting on Sheehy.)