HELENA – Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester made his re-election candidacy official Tuesday, as he paid his filing fee and said he’s ready to make his case as a strong advocate for Montana and rural interests.

He said his job is “making sure this state, which is a very rural state’s perspective, is promoted, whether it’s in education, whether it’s making sure our veterans get what they need or whether it’s making sure public lands remain public.”

Tester, 61, is running for a third consecutive term in what will be the highest-profile and most expensive electoral contest on Montana’ 2018 ballot.

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His filing Tuesday could be the final one for this race, which already has four Republicans, but it remains to be seen whether a Libertarian candidate will join the contest – as they have in Tester’s two previous elections.

Montana Libertarian Party Chair Michael Fucci told MTN News Tuesday that “a couple” of Libertarians are seriously considering the race, but declined to name them. The deadline for filing is less than three weeks away, on March 12.

The four Republicans in the race are state Auditor Matt Rosendale, Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, former state District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell.

The Republican candidates have been busy beating up on Tester, calling him a reliable vote for “left-wing special interests” and liberal Democrats in Washington, D.C.

Tester told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday that he’s the same farmer he was when he first ran 12 years ago, and that his opponents will “try to make me into something I’m not so they can run against that person.”

He said one of the main problems with Congress is that it’s too partisan and that members seldom work together to accomplish things – something he said he continues to emphasize.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do is work with anybody who will work with me,” he said. “I think we’ve seen that with the work we’ve done with the Veterans Affairs Committee and I think we’ve seen it on the banking bill that we just pulled out of committee in a bipartisan way.”

Tester has worked with Republicans on several proposals to improve Veterans Administration health care for eligible military veterans and on a bill to ease regulations on smaller banks and credit unions.

Tester is seen by some as a vulnerable Democrat in a state that President Trump won by 20 percentage points in 2016. However, he began 2018 with more than $6 million in his campaign account and no clear favorite among the Republicans who want to challenge him.

Tester also has resisted any harsh criticism of the president, saying he will work with Trump “when we can” and “hold (him) accountable when we must.”

On Tuesday, Tester defended his vote against the federal tax-cut bill written by Republicans and signed by the president in December.

He said the tax-cut bill and Trump’s proposed 2019 federal budget will add trillions of dollars to the federal debt, making it difficult to find money to finance any infrastructure plan.

“We’re going to add a record amount to the (federal) debt this year,” Tester said. “And most of that will be done because of that tax bill.”

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