The Magazine

How the West Was Won

Is Montana Senate candidate Jon Tester the new face of the Democratic party?

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Billings, Montana

Last year, Jon Tester and his wife Sharla went to Washington. It was early May, around Mother's Day, and Tester was considering a run for the U.S. Senate. The third term of Montana's Republican junior senator, Conrad Burns, was drawing to a close, and Burns looked vulnerable. Tester went to the nation's capital to talk to some people about his potential candidacy, but also to see whether he could live there. Tester grew up, and still lives, in Big Sandy (pop. 710), a farming community in north-central Montana. Big Sandy could not be more different from the District of Columbia. Tester was struck by the size of Washington, the number of people on the streets, but he liked it well enough. He could see himself renting an apartment there--for a few days out of the week. He and Sharla returned home, and on May 24, 2005, Tester announced he would run for the Senate.

It may be time for Tester to start calling Washington area real estate brokers. If Conrad Burns seemed vulnerable in May 2005, there is no question that he is vulnerable today. Burns is one of the least popular U.S. senators. He is bedeviled by his association with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his support for the war in Iraq. He trails in every poll, and D.C. Republicans routinely say they expect him to lose. Try as he might, Burns has been unable to label Tester, a farmer, as an out-of-touch liberal. Instead Tester, like fellow Senate challengers Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Jim Webb in Virginia, is an antiwar populist who talks about economic inequality and the damage done to America by the president's foreign policy.

But Tester might also be something more. The strength of his candidacy is one more sign that the Democratic party is growing in the West. The Interior West--which includes Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming--is slowly embracing Democratic politicians and Democratic policies. And the roster of Western Democratic pols is impressive. In Arizona, there is Gov. Janet Napolitano, who is cruising to reelection. In Colorado, there is Democratic senator Ken Salazar and his brother John, who represents the state's Third Congressional District. In Montana, in addition to Tester, there is Gov. Brian Schweitzer. In New Mexico, there is Gov. Bill Richardson, a potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidate and the current chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. And in Wyoming, there is Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who is also likely to be reelected.

There are additional signs of Democratic growth in the West. Colorado, Montana, and New Mexico all have Democratic legislatures. Democrats command a majority in the Nevada house, though not in the state senate. In Colorado, Democrat Bill Ritter is leading Republican congressman Bob Beauprez in the race to succeed Republican governor Bill Owens. The Democratic leadership in Congress consists of a Mormon from the Interior West (Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada) and a Catholic from the Pacific Coast (House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California). On Election Day, Democrats are looking to gain U.S. House seats in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

This past summer liberal bloggers from around the country held the first "Yearly Kos" convention in Las Vegas. A few months back Democrats announced they would hold a presidential primary in Nevada between the 2008 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Sometime soon, party leaders will decide whether to hold the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver or New York City. (The Republicans recently chose the Twin Cities for their 2008 convention.) Picking Denver would shift the axis of the presidential campaign westward and confirm that today's Democrats, like so many Americans before them, have decided to pull up stakes and seek their fortune on the frontier.

And if that is the case, then Jon Tester is more than an Everyman politician who got lucky and ran for national office in a bad year for Republicans. Tester just may end up being the new face of the Democratic party.

He is a striking figure. Tester is 50 years old, but with his buzz-cut (he trims it every three weeks), paunch, and expressive face, he resembles nothing so much as an overgrown boy. He smiles often and has a contagious laugh. Sometimes he seems out of breath. Though both men would probably blanch at the comparison, there is something of another Westerner, Dick Cheney, in Tester's physicality, in the way he addresses a crowd. He, like Cheney, speaks slowly and with deliberation. He looms over a podium, pulling the audience toward him.

Last Wednesday Tester went to the Hilands Golf Club to speak to 183 invited guests, almost all of them women. It was a friendly crowd. "This is a good group," Tester said. After some mingling he went to the front of the room and mentioned a recent conversation he had had with a friend. The friend had told Tester that many people were unsure about him. Not everyone knows your story, the friend had said. So Tester told the women his story.

He was born in Havre, and grew up in Big Sandy, where his family had lived since his grandfather homesteaded there in 1919. Farming was the family business: As soon as you were able, you were put to work. At times it could be a difficult life. When he was a boy, Tester lost the index, middle, and ring fingers on his left hand in an encounter with a meat grinder. Tester brags that he can still play the piano.

He matriculated at the College of Great Falls, from which he graduated in 1978 with a bachelor's degree in music. When school was over, Tester returned to Big Sandy, where he worked on the farm and taught music to elementary school kids. In addition to piano, he played the trumpet and baritone. While he was teaching, Tester attended church one day and noticed "this great looking lady" and thought, "Wow, this is good." He wanted to get to know her, so he went to the church youth group. The group played softball. Tester let the pretty girl strike him out. She must have appreciated it. Within a year the two were married, and they have remained so for 28 years. The Testers have two children and one grandchild. Another grandchild is due in January. Following Tester last week, I never saw him more than thirty feet away from his wife.

For Tester, life is centered around the family farm, which, at 1,800 acres, is a little smaller than most of those around it. The Testers grow wheat, lentils, barley, and peas, among other things, depending on the current crop rotation. In 1987 they decided to grow only organic crops. It is a crunchy lifestyle, no doubt about it. Tester says on the farm he learned the value of communication and cooperation. "You don't do things alone in this world," he told the ladies at the Hilands Golf Club.

In 1997, around Christmas, Tester called a family meeting to discuss his plans to run for the state senate. The family started campaigning the following February. Tester won. Montana state senators are limited to two four-year terms. It does not seem to be a particularly demanding job. The state legislature meets every two years for 90 days--though the joke in Montana is that things would be better if it met every 90 years for two days. It did not take long for Tester to rise through the Democratic ranks. In 2001 he was minority whip. Reelected in 2002, he served as minority leader for the 2003 session. And in 2005, with a Democratic majority, he was president of the senate.

Since he faced being "termed out" in January 2007, Tester went on, he called another family meeting to discuss his running for the U.S. Senate. "What we talked about was the time between Labor Day and Election Day," Tester said, "about how things were going to be said that were untrue . . . and absolutely cutting." That family meeting led to his and Sharla's trip to Washington, which led to his campaign announcement, which led to the Democratic primary race.

It was a race Tester was supposed to lose. His main opponent, state auditor John Morrison, was an establishment politician with ties to the Democratic Leadership Council. Morrison had the organizational and fundraising advantage. Tester had the support of the liberal bloggers. But Morrison soon faced charges of impropriety, and the race was up for grabs. Three weeks before the June 6 primary, Tester says, "we felt the momentum starting to swing." Campaign aides making calls to voters found that people supported Tester overwhelmingly. "I figured they were calling the wrong people," he told me. But he was wrong. Tester won, 61 percent to Morrison's 35 percent.

"Say hello to the next senator from the great state of Montana," the nation's most influential liberal blogger, Markos Moulitsas, wrote on his website Daily Kos when Tester won the Democratic primary. Later that night, in another post, Moulitsas drew a lesson from the victory. "Tester didn't quit despite early fundraising woes," Moulitsas wrote. "He didn't quit when he was down in January 45-25 [percent] according to Morrison's polling. Be cause people-power matters. And that message will reverberate inside the D.C. political and media elite tonight."

It is difficult to quantify the role the Internet has played in Tester's campaign. When I asked one aide how important the Internet was, he immediately said, "It's huge." For his part, Moulitsas sees in Tester and other Western Democrats the beginnings of a new Democratic party, even a new ideology. In the end, Moulitsas wrote on June 7, John Morrison's advantages--his money, his connections, his experience--were ir rel evant. Instead, "people matter." To Moulitsas, this only showed that the centrist Democratic Leadership Council is "an irrelevant, dying organization" because

it has no people behind it. It has no natural constituency. No ability to mobilize anything more than corporate lobbyists for any cause. And in today's people-powered environment, it is an anachronism of a different era, built for a different political world, unable or unwilling to change or adapt. Its candidates are dropping like flies, unable to win contested primaries. More and more DLC-aligned incumbents are facing tough primaries. Its patron saint--Joe Lieberman--may not even be a Democrat for long. You know Tester's dramatic victory has to weigh on Joementum.

As it happens, Moulitsas turned out to be right about Lieberman, though the fate of the DLC is still unclear. What is clear, though, is that Moulitsas has done everything he can to champion Tester's candidacy. For their book Crashing the Gate, Moulitsas and coauthor Jerome Armstrong, a blogger and political consultant, visited the farm at Big Sandy and wrote an adoring passage on Tester. Reading the books and web posts, you see that the bloggers are attracted to Tester's populism, his antiwar politics, his criticisms of the Patriot Act, and his authenticity.

But Moulitsas also believes Tester and other Western Democrats represent the beginning of a new political animal--what he calls the Libertarian Democrat. In this analysis, traditional libertarians err in seeing the government as the greatest threat to individual freedom. Corporations also threaten personal liberty, Moulitsas writes on his website and in a recent essay for the Cato Institute. So the Libertarian Democrat uses government power to limit the freedom-inhibiting tendencies of global capitalism while also guarding against abuses of government power. "A Libertarian Dem gets that no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so social net programs are important to allow individuals to continue to live happily into their old age," Moulitsas wrote in a June 7 post. "Same with health care. And so on."

One could argue that Moulitsas has elided the distinction between Rawlsian liberalism and Hayekian libertarianism. This might be why the Libertarian Democrat is to date strictly a laboratory creature. It has yet to be spotted in nature. Tester himself seems a little more sanguine about the importance of the liberal blogosphere. The Internet's power, he told me, is its ability to get "information out to people." "It's another avenue," he said. "It gives people the option to be interactive. Any time you give information out to folks, it's for the better." Tester believes the liberal blogs energize young voters, and sometimes more senior voters, too. His 86-year-old mother is a political junkie who goes online to read liberal websites like Left in the West, Daily Kos, and MyDD.

In truth, the most important factor in this campaign has not been the Internet. Nor has it been Tester. It has been his opponent, Burns, who seems to have worn out the patience of Montana voters. Tester says Burns has changed. "I just don't think Montanans go back and do the sort of things he did," he told me. "I don't think that was the guy they elected."

Burns, a former Marine, was born in Missouri, but moved to Montana when he was a teenager. He settled in Yellowstone County, where Billings is, and eventually became county commissioner. He was first elected to the Senate in 1988, only the second Republican senator from Montana in the state's history. In 1994 he became the first Republican senator from Montana to be reelected. In 2000 he fought a tough race against Brian Schweitzer, winning 51 percent to 47 percent. Schweitzer went on to become governor. Burns went on to become mired in scandal.

For a state that says it wants to be "left alone"--its legislature has passed a resolution condemning the Patriot Act--Montana is eager for as many federal dollars as it can get. On his website, Burns brags that over the course of his career he has brought more than $2 billion in federal taxpayer money to the state. Most of that money has been in the form of earmarks, or set-asides and grants loaded in appropriations bills. At a time when conservatives have roundly condemned the Republican Congress's non-defense discretionary spending habits, Burns has made his love of earmarks the center of his campaign. "He wants change," Burns said of his opponent on October 17, during a debate with Tester at Montana State University's Billings campus. "I'll tell you what he'll get: spare change."

The Tester campaign says that Burns is not as good an appropriator as he would have you believe. But this argument misses the point. It cuts against Tester's idea that there is something inherently corrupting about earmarks. It is alleged that some of the appropriations Burns is so proud of were favors done for Jack Abramoff. Burns received some $150,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff, who was a strong ally. He has since given that money to American Indian charities, but not before the felonious lobbyist became a central issue in this campaign. On the trail, Tester misses no opportunity to mention Abramoff, lobbyists, and Washington corruption. This clearly frustrates Burns, who has not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing and is adamant that he did nothing wrong. "Jon, you've dribbled this thing out for the last 18 months," Burns said at the Billings debate. "And there's nothing there."

"If there's nothing there," Tester replied, "why did you spend $27,000 last month for your criminal defense attorney?"

Burns has other problems. He is seen as close to President Bush at a time when Bush's popularity has collapsed and his power is waning. Then there is Burns's home-spun style. The problem is that it has a habit of spinning out of control. Until recently, Burns's wry sensibility was one of his biggest political assets. But that has changed. This year alone, he has cursed at a group of firefighters, made an insensitive comment about Hispanic immigrants, and forgotten the name of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. All these incidents caused him embarrassment. Last week, at the Billings debate, Burns claimed that President Bush indeed had a plan for victory in Iraq, but added, "We're not going to tell you what our plan is, Jon, because you're just going to go out and blow it." Whereupon the packed crowd burst into laughter. And Burns lost any credibility he might have had with the audience.

Montana is an unusual place. It is one of the largest states and one of the least populated. It is growing, but slowly. It has the fourth-highest median age among the states, and it ranks 42nd in median household income. It is overwhelmingly white; American Indians make up the largest minority group at 6 percent of the population. There are large numbers of veterans and retirees. In 1992 Montana gave Ross Perot around 26 percent of the vote. Clinton won the state that year, the first time a Democrat had taken Montana's electoral votes since 1964. In 2004 voters broke for Bush 59 percent to 39 percent and passed resolutions banning gay marriage and legalizing medical marijuana.

Also in 2004, Democrat Brian Schweitzer was elected governor, and the Democrats took control of the state legislature. Schweitzer is an atypical politician with a knack for catchy phrases and unusual positions. Not long ago, he told the New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg that his idea of gun control is "You control your gun and I'll control mine." Schweitzer has received glowing media coverage from the New York Times Magazine to the Washington Monthly to 60 Minutes. He once took George Steph anopoulos on a helicopter ride. And yet most of this coverage casts a blind eye to Schweitzer's more conservative tendencies. In 2004 he chose a Republican as his running mate. He supported John McCain's presidential bid in 2000. These days he's flirting with supporting Mitt Romney in 2008.

This ability to blur partisan and ideological lines may be one reason for the Democrats' success in Montana and elsewhere in the Interior West. When Schweitzer won in 2004, Democrats had been out of the governor's office for 16 years. They had been in the minority in both chambers of the state legislature for 12 years. Today they are in the majority. As Ryan Sager points out in his new book The Elephant in the Room, in 2004 Democrats in Montana won races for four out of five state offices. As Thomas Schaller points out in his new book Whistling Past Dixie, no state in the Interior West had a Democratic governor as recently as 2001. Today four of those states have Demo crats in the governor's mansion, and Democrats are running strong campaigns for governor in Colorado and Nevada. And as Mark Sundeen pointed out in a recent profile of Schweitzer, a decade ago the Interior West was home to 24 congressional districts of which Democrats held 4. Today the region is home to 28 districts of which Demo crats hold 8. On Election Day they may pick up as many as 4 more.

One day last week, I asked Tester why the Democrats seem to be doing so well in the West.

He doesn't know. "Part of it is the fact that we've worked very hard to get our message out," he said, before adding that Montana and other Western states would vote less for Republicans in presidential elections if only Demo cratic candidates campaigned there.

It was a typical answer. Tester is not what you would call a detail-oriented politician. He tends to stick to generalities. If this were a different year, and Burns were a different sort of candidate, it would hurt Tester. He never mentions how he would vote on taxes. He never mentions which specific health care policies he would adopt, saying only that all options should be "on the table." He avoids confrontation. As I watched Tester interact with voters, I never heard him ask anyone for their vote.

And Tester has another vulnerability. If he is elected, he will become the most liberal senator from Montana in decades. He is a true dove. When I asked him when he would support the use of military force overseas, he said, "Last resort. You've exhausted all other options, then you use military force." He wouldn't say much more. Eventually he added that he supported the war in Afghanistan, "You bet." When I asked him about the Patriot Act, which he has said he would like to see repealed, he softened his language. "We ought not to cut the judicial branch out of it," he said. "If it can't meet constitutional muster, it's got to be scrapped." When I asked him who his political hero was, he chose a stock answer for Democrats, saying that Theodore Roosevelt was a "great man" on "a lot of different fronts." But then he paused, and added that he admired Mike Mansfield, the antiwar Democrat who represented Montana in the U.S. Senate from 1953 to 1977.

It is probably Tester's dovishness, in a post-9/11 world, that has prevented him from opening a double-digit lead over Burns in the polls. In the end, though, this race will be decided on how well the embattled incumbent has represented Montana's interests. Tester's positions on national security issues and his sometimes vaporous rhetoric probably won't matter. Some people even find this latter aspect of his political persona endearing.

On October 17, Tester visited St. Vincent Health Care hospital in Billings, where he ate lunch with a group of doctors. For a hospital dining room, the food didn't seem too healthy: The entrées on offer were chicken fried steak and ham. Tester grabbed a plate and started eating. The conversation was polite. One of the doctors mentioned he once spent a summer in Big Sandy. Tester got excited. They discussed the "big white house" about 30 miles outside of town that the MacNamara ranching family built long ago. Every so often Tester would turn to Sharla and ask her a question.

Then the talk turned serious. The doctors started complaining about malpractice lawsuits. It became clear that these medical professionals felt heavy pressure not only from lawyers sniffing out the next kill but also from government bureaucrats and needy patients. They saw health care not simply in terms of the uninsured, but as a complicated tradeoff involving cost control, access to services, and quality of care. Someone asked Tester what should be done. He clearly had no idea what to say, so he opened the floor to suggestions. After a little more discussion he asked, "So what's the solution?"

"You tell us," one of the doctors replied.

"You guys are in the field," Tester said. "I know how to grease a combine, okay?"

Everyone laughed and smiled, but Tester's smile was the widest of them all.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.