Montana's picked-over mining town, Butte, is located in the northern reaches of the American Rockies, hemmed in by two national forests and set atop thousands of miles of tunnels, many now abandoned, all once used to extract the raw materials demanded by the rise of the American city. First it was the precious metals, gold and silver, fancied by the distant urban elite. Then came copper, in huge quantities, needed for carrying the first electrical current to places such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
To get to Butte from Seattle, drive 600 miles east on Interstate 90, up and over Snoqualmie Pass, across the wide grass fields and crusty farmland of the Columbia plateau, through the pine forests of the Idaho panhandle, into the thrusting Rockies, and then, finally, depart from the highway at Exit 126, Montana Avenue. I made this drive last week, heading for the Butte Labor Temple, a remnant of the town's once-powerful miners' unions, where I was to meet the third-generation farmer whom Democrats see as key to their attempt to take control of the U.S. Senate: Jon Tester.
For an out-of-power party sick of losing the rural vote to Republicans, Tester has emerged as a savior. If he prevails in his effort to unseat three-term Republican incumbent Conrad Burns, as recent polls suggest he could, Tester will become the latest among several examples of tough, iconoclastic Democrats who are winning in red areas of the country by mixing their own rural roots with a gritty populism. It's a style (and a strategy) that turns the tables on cowboy conservatives, and it's being mimicked elsewhere with good results. This election cycle, with a wave of frustration building against Republicans in Congress, liberal candidates in the Tester mold have been running strong in unexpected places, such as Eastern Washington and Western Idaho. And in other parts of the West (not the cushy West Coast, but the rugged Rocky Mountain West) there is excited talk of completing a "Blue Bridge" of Democratic governorships spanning five red states.
This bridge already includes Montana, where in 2004 the proto-Tester, a Democratic farmer named Brian Schweitzer, put the Montana governor's mansion in liberal hands for the first time in 16 years (this during the same election cycle that saw the "cowboy" president, George W. Bush, take Montana by 20 points). The bridge also includes Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—all states that gave Bush their electoral votes in 2004—and after Election Day it may come to include Colorado, where a former construction worker is running strong on the Democratic gubernatorial ticket.
Watch Tester in action and it's not difficult to see why his persona plays better in Montana than that of, say, John Kerry—who, for all his hunting photo ops, was still an urbane liberal in a barn jacket. In Butte, after having crossed first Iron Street, and then Aluminum, Platinum, Gold, and Mercury Streets, I came upon Tester walking across Granite Street. He was wearing cowboy boots and a barely matching outfit: olive herringbone jacket, purple shirt, and dust-brown slacks. His impressive gut preceded him. His trademark blond flattop identified him. And his mangled left hand, from which he lost three fingers to a meat grinder in his youth, was waving back at supporters.
Behind him walked two aides in Carhartt jackets and sturdy shoes, looking, to the citified eye, more like ranchers than political operatives. They all ducked into the Labor Temple, where a podium had been set in front of two television cameras and several rows of empty chairs. Montana is an empty state, the third emptiest in the country in fact, with only 6 people per square mile compared to Washington State's 88 per square mile (and far behind New Jersey's 1,134 per square mile). It's also a state filled with people who don't want to be watched too closely or told what to do; there were a number of union-member types at the Labor Temple event, but they chose to stand in back, behind the cameras, leaving vacant the chairs that had been provided for them.
The theme of the press conference was tax policy, and Tester flipped around the typical Republican attack line about "tax-and-spend liberals," calling Burns a "borrow-and-spend conservative" who'd been overfriendly with the likes of Jack Abramoff, signed off on wasteful appropriations, and helped run up the national debt. He also slammed Burns's reported support for a national sales tax, saying that in a poor state like Montana such a tax would "put the kibosh" on many families being able to send their kids to college, never mind being able to take a minimal vacation.
"It's nice to go out fishin' sometimes," Tester noted.
* * *
After the 2000 presidential race, it was easy for liberals to explain to themselves why they'd lost: a "stolen" election, snatched from Al Gore and delivered to Bush by the U.S. Supreme Court. But in 2004, with so much political material to exploit—including a war in Iraq launched on faulty intelligence, a rising death count for American soldiers, and a failure to find September 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden—it was harder to explain the loss, which made it all the more bitter for Democrats. There were those who believed, again, that the election had been stolen, this time from Kerry through Republican shenanigans in Ohio and elsewhere. But with Bush's margin of victory so slim, most of the focus was on why the Democrats simply couldn't connect with more voters.
Many blamed a weak presidential candidate who hesitated to fight back when his own war record was attacked. But there was also a wider reevaluation of the Democratic posture and message. Leading Democrats started working religious references into their speeches, trying to court "values voters." Urged on by exasperated liberal bloggers, Democrats also started hitting back when attacked, realizing that part of the perceived weakness of the "Mommy Party" was its rhetorical weakness. In an age of fear, this line of thinking went, the reputation of Democrats as the party of wimpy urban liberalism and college-town intellectual masturbation had to be put down.
There were also those who went another way, who looked at the electoral map, with its blue holdouts clustered, predictably, around big cities and college towns, and decided that the problem lay not with smart, tolerant, urban blue America but primarily with the red "rubes" out in the sticks who voted against their own interests with infuriating reliability. Journalist Thomas Frank wrote an entire book on the subject, calling it What's the Matter with Kansas? In this paper, a widely read manifesto urged urban voters to retreat into an "Urban Archipelago," where liberals could focus on their own issues and hopefully build an urban base so big that its votes would one day outnumber those of rural America ["Urban Archipelago," Editors of The Stranger, Nov 11, 2004]. In this same vein of reflexive isolationism, one anonymous writer, whose rant "Fuck the South" gained wide circulation after the 2004 election, suggested abandoning the incorrigibly red Bible belt altogether.
"Take your liberal-bashing, federal-tax-leaching, Confederate-flag-waving, holier-than-thou, hypocritical bullshit and shove it up your ass," went this cri de coeur. "'Cause we fucking founded this country, assholes. Those Founding Fathers you keep going on and on about? All that bullshit about what you think they meant by the Second Amendment giving you the right to keep your assault weapons in the glove compartment because you didn't bother to read the first half of the fucking sentence? Who do you think those wig-wearing lacy-shirt-sporting revolutionaries were? They were fucking blue staters, dickhead."
Cathartic, no doubt, but it also demonstrated precisely the quality that turns rural voters against urban-identified Democrats: arrogance. People, understandably, want to vote for representatives who seem to understand and respect them. Forcing rural voters to admit that urban liberals are culturally and morally superior as a precondition for entering the Democratic Party—well, it's probably not a recipe for Democratic success at the polls.
It's also somewhat hypocritical in that it embraces the same kind of Manichean worldview that liberals find so contemptible in Bush, replacing his "good versus evil" with another black-and-white binary, "urban versus rural." No surprise, it's not that simple out there in rural America, and in fact, ceding rural areas to Republicans gives up on places that aren't actually as red as they appear—areas that in elections such as this one may be winnable. Witness Tester, a pro-gun-rights organic farmer from the conservative north-central Montana town of Big Sandy. He doesn't like the way the war in Iraq is going, doesn't want the government interfering in a woman's choices about her health, doesn't bash stem-cell research, and currently leads Burns (just barely) in the polls.
Tester confounds the easy red-blue dichotomy, and in doing so he is able to appeal to more than just blue voters. It's an authentic in-between-ness that works in America's in-between areas, as I noticed as soon as I left liberal Seattle, soy latte in hand.
* * *
It was a clear late-October day when I set off, driving first across Lake Washington and into the 8th Congressional District, where former Microsoft manager Darcy Burner is running even with freshman Republican congressman Dave Reichert in a race that could produce the first Democratic representative ever for Seattle's eastern suburbs and the rural lands immediately beyond them. If Tester has wandered off the orthodox-liberal reservation (criticizing the estate tax and supporting his state's ban on gay marriage), Burner only steps a few feet outside it at a time. In a recent debate, when asked about the Second Amendment, Burner made an unusual announcement, at least for Democrat: "I have a gun and I know how to use it," she said. Then she joked: "No one should take that as a threat."
Burner has benefited from a deep dissatisfaction this year with the direction of the country under President Bush and the Republican Congress, a dissatisfaction that was palpable even when I crossed the Cascade Mountains and descended into the 4th District, home of six-term Republican congressman Doc Hastings. As head of the House Ethics Committee, Hastings has had to handle (or, his critics would say, pretend to handle) the fallout from scandals involving Abramoff, disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and, more recently, alcoholic and accused congressional-page stalker Mark Foley. While these scandals have helped give this Congress record-low approval ratings, Hastings remains quite popular in his district and has not drawn a strong challenger this cycle. That doesn't mean, however, that people in his district aren't hoping for a Democratic Congress—even those who support Hastings.
Looking for lunch, I pulled into the town of Moses Lake, located almost exactly in the center of Eastern Washington and on the eastern edge of Hastings's district. The main strip off the highway held an American Legion outpost, several truck dealerships, an ATV sales lot, the Galilee Baptist Church, and a bunch of $300/month apartments. I chose a Mexican restaurant, El Rodeo, and as soon as I walked in overheard two men talking about the likely Democratic takeover of Congress and how it might improve immigration policy. (The 4th District is a huge hub of migrant workers, who labor during harvest season in its grape fields and apple orchards.)
I expected the guys at El Rodeo to be lonely Democrats, but when I struck up a conversation with them I found two Independents who planned on voting for Hastings. It's a familiar phenomenon: People hate Congress but they like their congressman.
Jeff, a human-resources manager who didn't want his last name used, told me that his support for Hastings not withstanding, the mood in the 4th District is ripe for change. "People are not happy," he said, adding that "when the Democrats take over Congress," he hopes they will be out to impress Independent voters like himself. If they do better than this Congress, he might consider voting Democratic next time around.
"Checks and balances are good," Jeff continued. "I feel like once a decade there should be a shift, and I feel like that's healthy."
Not what Republicans are hoping to hear from the base, or from Independents, this year. Back on the highway and heading out of Hastings's district, I spotted a white Chevy Silverado pickup truck, battered and rusted through in spots. It was heading the same direction as I was, past recently plowed fields that looked like giant swaths of brown corduroy. On its tailgate, directly in the center, was a Bush-Cheney sticker, faded from the harsh Eastern Washington sun and ragged, as if someone had tried unsuccessfully to tear it off. Next to that was another sticker, blue and new, reading: "Pacific Northwest's Next Endangered Species: The Family Farmer." It was a succinct depiction of the opening Democrats now have in rural farming communities.
High fuel prices are not just the hobgoblin of the urban commute. They have been making life miserable for farmers throughout the country, so when a credible Democrat talks about energy independence and alternative fuels, farmers listen. It's happening in Montana, where Tester mentions renewable fuels and energy independence every chance he gets, and it's also happening in Washington's 5th District, just to the east of Hastings's stronghold, where rancher and Democratic candidate Peter Goldmark is pushing biodiesel and increased local energy production through biomass technology.
Goldmark is quite clearly emulating Tester (and Schweitzer before him), running commercials that show him standing on his wheat-farming ranch in Okanogan County and last weekend riding through Spokane on a horse, along with a posse of supporters, to drop off his mail-in ballot. Goldmark's Republican opponent, freshman congresswoman Cathy McMorris, recently admitted (inadvertently, when she thought she wasn't being recorded) that the race has become surprisingly close. The National Republican Congressional Committee is also sounding the alarm; last week it listed McMorris, along with Reichert, as among the GOP's "most in need."
Democrats held the 5th District House seat for 30 years under former House Speaker Tom Foley, only to lose it during the 1994 "Republican Revolution," so it's not far-fetched to think that this year, with a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment building in the other direction, the seat could fall back into Democratic hands. The 5th District is also a microcosm of the urban/rural divide that Democrats are learning to navigate in new ways. After hours spent driving past fields, wire fences, giant irrigation pipes, and old farm vehicles parked with grass up their bumpers, I pulled into Spokane and ordered a cup of green tea at Rocket Bakery & Espresso. A woman with a lip ring waited on me as a freight train rolled by on a railroad trestle outside. A black man—the first I'd seen since leaving Seattle, and the last I'd see until I returned—leaned against one of the exposed brick walls, wearing a three-piece suit and sipping coffee.
The bookshelf offered works by Gloria Steinem and primers on science. In the middle of this scene, which could have been taking place in Seattle, I ran into a staffer for the Goldmark campaign. She was wearing a giant "Ride with Goldmark" button and, asked about the strangeness of urbanite Democrats rallying around a cowboy farmer, responded with the pragmatism of a liberal who wants to win above all else. "He's the perfect candidate for Eastern Washington," she said. "He knows how to fix a combine and drive a tractor—he's the real thing."
It was getting dark as I entered Idaho, the sun setting over Lake Coeur d'Alene. On the radio, the local NPR affiliate was reporting that five more U.S. soldiers had been killed in Iraq. In Wallace, a tiny town near the border with Montana, I pulled off for gas and met Cheryl Triplett, 48, who said of Bush: "He's run this country into rags and ruins." That sentiment is apparently widespread in Idaho, and when combined with a Republican congressional candidate, Bill Sali, who even local Republicans have denounced as dishonest, it has led to the surging candidacy of Democrat Larry Grant, born and still living in Fruitland, Idaho, along the border with Oregon. Shocked that a Democrat would even be within striking distance in conservative Idaho, national Republicans are dumping money into the race and Dick Cheney is reportedly on his way to rally the base. Triplett didn't know if she would vote, but she knew what everyone was now saying: that yet another race in the red, rural West had unexpectedly become a "tossup."
* * *
Missoula, about two hours west of Butte, is Montana's laid-back college town, where people leave their beater bikes unlocked outside cafes and where, in the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader enjoyed a percentage of the vote much higher than that given to him by most cities around the country. In other words, the place is a good distance culturally from the mining town in which I'd started my Montana day. Back in blue-collar Butte, when I'd asked a Tester staffer where to get a cup of coffee, he'd pointed to the M&M, a diner sided in corrugated metal and filled with prickly regulars. The minute I walked in, I knew I wasn't going to be getting a soy latte, and when I tried for Earl Grey tea the waitress gave me a funny look and handed me Lipton. In Missoula, things were different. When I asked where I should go for dinner, I was pointed to an Italian restaurant where I ordered the special salad: fresh local chanterelle mushrooms sautéed with garlic, fresh thyme, and asparagus tips, served over mixed greens and tossed in a Dijon and champagne vinaigrette, with herbed goat cheese on the side. The map of America's red and blue states, being the result of each state's winner-take-all presidential vote, is a coarse measure of what lies beneath. In red Montana, if one finds the right spot, there's still enough blue to get goat cheese and chanterelles.
That evening, at a packed bar near the railroad tracks, while Tester schmoozed and backslapped donors, an old supporter, the former Montana congressman Pat Williams, explained to me what he thinks is going on in the Mountain West.
"Folks out here," Williams said, "are beginning to come to grips with the fact that (A) they're environmentalists, (B) they don't like intrusions on their privacy, and (C) they don't like swaggering pseudo-cowboys who pick fights they can't win."
Williams, who represented Montana in Congress for 18 years, is now a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a Missoula think tank. He credits Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's 50-state strategy with putting new parts of the West in play. Until recently, Williams told me, "Both parties have ignored the West. One party, the Republicans, has believed that if it tilted its Stetson just so, we would be enamored with that. The other party, my party, seemed to believe that if every four years our presidential candidate skied down the slopes of Sun Valley, we'd vote for him." Dean has reportedly clashed with other party leaders over his 50-state strategy, an expensive effort to identify Democratic leaders and build Democratic organizations in every state in the country—even in conservative places such as Idaho, Nebraska, and Mississippi—rather than focusing limited Democratic resources exclusively on typical Democratic strongholds near the coasts. But it's a strategy that's paying off this year, with Democrats in place all across the nation to capitalize on the anti-Republican wave.
Looking at the gains Democrats have made in Montana—which now has a Democratic-controlled state legislature, a Democratic governor (Schweitzer), a Democratic senator (Max Baucus), and perhaps, after November 7, a second Democratic senator (Tester)—some have even gone as far as to suggest that the less-religious West, rather than the Bible-embracing South, could be the Democrats' route back to the White House. "It's the future for the Democratic Party nationally," Steve Doherty, a former Montana state legislator, told me at the bar in Missoula. "The inner-mountain West is the place where the Democrats are winning and talking to voters about pocketbook issues in a way that makes sense to them."
As I followed Tester around Western Montana last week, he never missed an opportunity to tie political issues back to his life as a farmer. A discussion of the federal budget deficit begins: "I was balancing books on the farm the other day..." A discourse on the estate tax starts off: "I jumped on the combine the other day with my son-in-law..." And any talk of gun control leads right back to his time as a custom butcher: "I'm the only person in this race who's made his living with a gun...."
* * *
Tester may not win. Same for Larry Grant in Idaho and Peter Goldmark in Eastern Washington. But even if they lose, something is changing in the rural West, where Democrats haven't run this strong in years.
"We're the headwaters," Doherty told me at the bar in Missoula, and it took me a little while to figure out what he was saying. But on the drive back home it clicked. He was talking about the Columbia River, one of Washington State's essential features and also one of its biggest economic engines. The Columbia irrigates the Eastern Washington farmland, it powers the hydro dams that light Seattle, and it is fed, in part, by water from Montana's Columbia Falls—water that flows first through Montana's Flathead River, then into Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille, and ultimately into the Columbia. Any change upstream, Doherty was saying, affects everything downstream. His Rocky Mountain State is not a backwater, but a headwater. And the current, he was suggesting, seems to be running in a Democratic direction.
If it carries Tester to the Senate, and as a result the Democrats gain a majority in that chamber, the main beneficiary won't be Montana. It will be the urban liberals who have been screaming for a check on Bush's power for the past six years. Stuck in traffic and headed back into the city, it occurred to me that in the Seattle metropolitan area alone, there are more than three times as many people as there are in all of Montana. A Senate majority with Tester in it will give Seattle liberals exactly what they want from Congress on the war, reproductive rights, social security, and habeas corpus, to mention only a few issues. Just as rural America benefits disproportionately from federal subsidies paid for largely with urban tax dollars, the Urban Archipelago benefits disproportionately on policy matters when rural Democrats win.
Sure, Tester may not be exactly where the left wants him to be on the estate tax and he won't be introducing any Senate bills to create federal recognition for gay marriage. But neither will Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid or even the senator from the gay-marriage-legalizing state of Massachusetts, John Kerry. And ultimately, Tester's position on gay rights is more liberal than that of his Republican opponent, Burns. While following Tester on the campaign trail, I heard him respond to gay-rights questions by emphasizing his support for the 2004 decision by Montana voters to ban gay marriage (that same year, by the way, the voters of Montana also voted to legalize medical marijuana). But in fact, while Republican Burns voted in the Senate this year to amend the Constitution to prohibit gay unions, Tester opposes tampering with the Constitution on this issue. Thus, in the Senate he'd be one more vote against a perennial thorn in the urban liberal side, the so-called Federal Marriage Amendment.
Congress isn't just run by two different parties, it's run by two different governing coalitions. And as the last six years have shown, the question of whose coalition controls Congress, while not as simple and sexy as the race for the presidency, is tremendously important. In one of his campaign commercials, Tester, standing in a wheat field, asks: "Isn't it time we made the Senate look a little bit more like Montana?" It's a question intended to play to his strength as a native son, but the fact is, if Tester wins and the Senate changes hands, the chamber will look only a tiny bit more like Montana.
On policy matters, however, it will look a whole lot more like citified America—exactly the type of governing body that urban Democrats so desperately want.