Seemingly taking a page right out of the Mark Udall/Michael Bennet playbook, Montana Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester is running for reelection as a moderate who campaigns in cowboy boots and decries the extremism of today’s Congress.
Tester will likely get his state’s Democratic votes while ceding most of the Republican votes to his opponent. As in Colorado and so many other places these days, the next election in Montana will come down to that mighty middle of unaffiliated voters, the majority of whom Tester is betting are fed up with Tea Party extremism.
A few election cycles ago, before the recession, the debt crisis and the Tea Party movement redefined American politics, a species called “the New Western Democrat” emerged in places like Montana.
Identified by their moderate politics, their plumage — typically a cowboy hat and boots — and by the ability to spit with authenticity, these centrists gave hope to Democrats nationally that a traditionally conservative corner of the country might be won over.
Now, Senator Jon Tester, a big-bellied farmer and self-described populist Democrat seeking a second term, is staking his career — and with it, perhaps his party’s control of the Senate — on a bet that the West’s middle way is still viable. Extremism, Mr. Tester said again and again in a round of campaign stops across the state last week, is a direr threat to Montana than tough times, national debt or recession.
“Working together is what built this place when the homesteaders came here,” Mr. Tester told a radio audience last week in Billings. “Working together is a Montana way of life, it’s a Montana value and we need to take that back to Washington, D.C. Start working for proactive solutions instead of trying to find excuses to vote against stuff.”
Talk like that is not aimed at Montana Democrats, who by and large seem happy with Mr. Tester, or at Republicans, who seem largely to have rallied already around his Republican challenger, Representative Denny Rehberg, but at unaffiliated and often downright alienated voters like Dixie and Jess Kibbee who define Montana’s quirky electorate and will most likely decide the 2012 election here.
Of course, treading the middle ground and taking Democrat votes for granted can also pose problems for a first-term senator seeking reelection, especially given that it is the party base that will pay for the campaign.
But Tester, who was elected with strong support from the netroots, is in a special bind. By doing what he says he was sent to Washington to do—represent his rural constituents—Montana’s junior senator is beginning to irk the activists and fundraisers who propelled him to victory in the first place. In December, Tester voted against the DREAM Act, which would’ve created a pathway to citizenship for the foreign-born children of illegal immigrants. His strategists insist that a yea vote would have sunk the senator in anti-“amnesty” Montana, but Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, whose followers filled Tester’s coffers with $343,000 in 2006, was furious anyway. “He is … the Democrat I will most be happy to see go down in defeat,” Moulitsas wrote. “And he will.” Tester was undeterred. As they hammered out April’s shutdown-averting budget, legislators stripped every environmental add-on from the package except one: a plan to end federal protections and allow hunting of the region’s gray wolves, which prey on livestock and game. The rider was Congress’s first-ever attempt to remove an animal from the endangered-species list, and it angered activists, with one, Michael Garrity, going so far as to compare “local control” of wolves to “turning over the civil rights problem in the ’60s to the governors of Mississippi and Alabama.” Turns out it was Tester’s handiwork. “I’m tired of the triangulation,” says Paul Edwards, a Montana environmentalist (and part-time Los Angeleno) who raised $50,000 for Tester in 2006. “You know, ‘He’s the best we’ve got. The others would be too terrible.’ Well, let ’em be terrible. Better the enemy I know than the enemy I thought was my friend.”