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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.