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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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."