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A Crucial Senate Race Could Come Down to One Question: Do I Trust You?

The rural dirt farmer versus the decorated Navy SEAL.

The longtime Democratic incumbent in a deep-red state versus the youthful conservative handpicked by Republicans to topple him.

The man who lost three fingers to a meat grinder versus the man who got shot — or maybe didn’t — in Afghanistan.

Montana’s high-profile race for Senate, which could decide the balance of power in Washington, is shaping up as a fight to see whose unique biography can best earn the trust of the state’s wary voters.

Republicans believe that the Democrat they are trying to defeat, Senator Jon Tester, 67, is vulnerable to attacks that he has lost touch with Montanans and become a Washington insider. Democrats see plenty to exploit in the background of the likely Republican nominee, Tim Sheehy, 38, a wealthy businessman and military veteran who grew up outside the state and has offered conflicting accounts of how he sustained a years-old gunshot wound.

Voters all over the country have long bristled at candidates who come across as transactional or fake. But this year, questions about authenticity have pervaded an unusually large number of Senate races as Republicans try to seize back the chamber.

Senator Jon Tester of Montana, center, is one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, with his party confronting an unfriendly map this year.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

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