Elections '06: Montana Senate

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Purple mountain majesties,” if it sounded less, well, purple, could be the new bumper sticker for Montana. As the fourth-largest state with fewer than a million residents, its vast uncrowded reaches are nothing if not majestic. Its mountains — both big and small — are the stuff of postcards. And politically, though you might not expect it, it’s right there in the purple spectrum.

The flat, dry eastern part of Montana tilts Republican; the greener, mountainous west leans Democratic. It’s not yet clear how new imports — retirees looking to be left alone, and hip young things working online and in the market for lattes and sushi — are changing voting patterns. Although as a whole registered Republicans have a small edge, roughly 25% percent of the population is independent, which determines everything.

All of which makes the close Senate race (between Republican incumbent Conrad Burns and Democratic challenger Jon Tester) a nail-biter. Montana voted red in nine of the last ten presidential elections, but its own Senate is majority Democratic, and in 2004 it picked uber-charismatic Democrat Brian Schweitzer for governor. (You can hear Schweitzer on one of our global warming shows here.)

Governor Schweitzer is campaigning hard for Jon Tester, an organic farmer and music teacher with a flattop haircut, a generous belly, and a down-home demeanor. Tester is currently the state Senate president. Conrad Burns, trying to dig himself out of a Jack Abramoff hole, is doing his best — using the folksy charm of his former radio and cattle-auctioneer careers — to paint Tester as a raging liberal.

Just how liberal is Tester, really? He’s pro-choice and pro-environment, but he’s also pro-gun. Definitely not East Coast liberal. But are he and Schweitzer a new breed — “Western Democrats” — or are they just dyed-in-the-wool Montanans? In other words: populists, because Montana Democrats were born in opposition to the the Anaconda Copper Company that controlled Montana — its newspapers, its politics, its industry — for years; and libertarian, because although Montana’s no longer a frontier, it’s still faaaaar away from any kind of big city? You could also imagine, though, that Tester and Schweitzer are bellwethers for the “purpling” of other Western states (the result of big demographic changes).

So: is Montana leading a trend, or is it just staying true to its long-time unpredictable spirit? And either way, are Tester and Schweitzer a winning new model for Democrats in rural America?

Thomas McGuane

Author, most recently, Gallatin Canyon: Stories

Dennis Swibold

Professor, The School of Journalism, University of Montana

Author, Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics, and the Montana Press, 1889-1959

Michael Lange

Pipefitter, Billings, MT

Republican Floor Leader, Montana House

Jay Stevens

Blogger, 4&20 Blackbirds

Kari Chisholm

Founder, WesternDemocrat.com

President, Mandate Media

Thanks to emmettoconnell for suggesting Kari Chisholm

Extra Credit Reading

Craig Sprout, Monatana Race Catch-Up, gather.com: “While considered by many to be a reliably “red” state, the fact is Montana can almost be counted upon to be contrarian. Remember: this is the state that sent Jeanette Rankin to Congress and Mike Mansfield to the Senate. In an election where a Republican president won by 20 points, we elected a Democrat governor.”

Marrie Horrigan, Montana’s Tester on Track to Pick Up Another Senate Seat for Dems, The New York Times, October 24, 2006: “Burns was near the top of the Democrats’ target list coming into the 2006 campaign cycle, based on his narrow victory in his last Senate outing.”

Pogie, Why Democrats Lose Elections, Intelligent Discontent, October 21, 2006: “Electing Jon Tester matters. Jon Tester may not pass every progressive litmus test, but electing him will much better protect the agenda that progressives believe in.”

Josh Eidelson, The Muckraker’s Reference Section: Conrad Burns, TPM Muckraker: “Republican Conrad Burns, the junior Senator from Montana, has been named by the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post as one of the main possible targets in the Jack Abramoff investigation.”

Matthew Continetti, How the West Was Won, The Weekly Standard, October 30, 2006: “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.”

Related Content

  • Two folks come to mind immediatly: Matt Singer of Left in the West and Kari Chisolm, who founded Western Democrat.

  • Hushd

    Remember the appropriate Montana Joke?


    Contestants must travel from Billings through Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Great Falls and back to Billings through Grass range and Roundup. They must drive a Volvo with a bumper sticker that reads: “I’m gay, an abortion doctor, and I’m here to take your guns.”

    First one to make the round-trip safely is the winner!

    The abortion issue impacts the whole country but frankly gun prohibition is typically a very urban issue only. Also, abortion laws are restricting rights just like gun laws do. I am no gun nut but I hope the dems can embrace the right to bear arms crowd and become more populist in that vein – I hope it is a new model! When Schweitzer was asked how many guns he owned he responded “more than I need and less than I want”. That is probably true and good politicking as well. I believe a gay, abortion doctor could win an election in Montana if he had lots of guns and challenged his opponent to a fist fight during a public debate.

    Hush D

  • One of the common mistakes about delving into the West is that people think all of “red” America is red in the same way. Southern conservatism, the dominant philosophy of the GOP, is starkly different from Western conservatism. Or, as I’d say “the West is not the South.”

    Abortion, for one, doesn’t have the knee jerk potential in Montana that it does in Mississippi.

    Also, there is an interesting connection to how gun rights in the West connect with environmentalism. David Sirota: “Second, it let us speak to both left-leaning environmentalists, who wanted public lands and wildlife herds maintained, and right-leaning outdoorsmen, who wanted a place to recreate and a steady population of game to hunt. This was especially important because we did not want to alienate the enviros who would be out in force on election day to vote against an initiative to permit cyanide leach mining. Stern, who had a deft sense of strategy, once pointed out, ‘Hunters can be some of the biggest environmentalists around, even though they don’t think of themselves that way and would never in a million years label themselves that.’”

  • Katherine

    emmettoconnell: More good suggestions! Do you have any favorites on the conservative side of the MT blogosphere?

  • Ducks Unlimited is a national hunting/conservation organization. When I worked on forest conservation issues in Montana and Idaho in the 90s they were well established allies with lots of clout.


  • gooddogs

    First, no one registers in either party in Montana, we have an open primary system. The figures on voter registration is usually a tally of number of voters in each respective primary.

    That is reflective of the political attitude in the state, my politics are my business, yours are yours. I recently met Jon Tester and found him a thoughtful, centered individual. He was dismissive of the negative campaigning against him, and somewhat embarrased of the same that his party was engaged in. The standard we hold our politicians to in this state is that of the late Mike Mansfield, Senate Majority Leader and often his contemporary Sen.Lee Metcalf. With some seasoning, Mr. Tester may have the tools to meet that standard. Sen. Burns has been a loutish disappointment, his only real claim being in the arena of pork.

  • loki

    Where is Mike Mansefied when we need it. Myster write James Lee Burke lives in Montanta.

  • loki

    The other election to follow is Daniel Ortega ?

  • Hushd


    Don’t you think some hunters embrace the enviro label?…I thought that was why many on the right want to call enviros “greens” instead of environmentalists – they consider themselves enviros and want another term for the granola eating, sandal wearing etc. I know loggers consider themselves environmentalists. I guess I just thought most people who recycled thought they were enviros.

    Hush D

  • loki

    Ask about (Gen) Thomas Meagher(who was trown out of Ireland and escaped australia) He was territorial Govenor of Montana-a statue of Meagher is acrross

    from the State House in Montana.

  • montucky kid

    Check this out – GW is coming to Montana tomorrow to stump for Conrad Burns:


    Who: The Royal Ruler himself: GEORGE W. BUSH will be in Billings

    What: A private, invitation only Republican Fundraiser for Conrad Burns,

    with a gala PEACE PRESENCE on the outside, consisting of

    Folks just like YOU from all over Montana

    Where: At the Metra Park Arena, Billings. Maps can be found at:

    (Or you can ride share,

    see below)

    When: Festivities begin at noon. Republicans have been advised to be at

    the arena at 10:30. WE INTEND TO BE THERE TOO.

    JUST FOR YOU: Carpools will be leaving Bozeman at 7:00 A. M.

    We have interesting signs and materials for crafting your own message.

    There are rumors of a potential presence of some orange jump suited, black

    hooded prisoners of Bush and Burns justice – could this be you? Let us



    Margarita McLarty


  • As I listen (pacfic time) I’m hoping you won’t forget Republican Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin from Montana who voted against entry into World War I, World War II and resisted Vietnam.

  • “There can be no compromise with war; it cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense; for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible. [1929]”

    Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin

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  • Oh geeze, that Montana show was so MACHO. How can you talk for a whole hour about independant minded Montana politicians without even mentioning Jeanette Rankin? By the gender equality of that show you’d think everyone in Montana is a manly Marlboro man… but hey, not ALL cowboys are gay… there are WOMEN in Montana too. My Grandmother gave birth to my Dad in Wolf Springs Montana where they ranched in the 1920s and that is the left wing side of my family. I worked on the Editorial Collective of the Earth First! Journal in Missoula in the 1990s. My first Earth First! action was in Max Bacus’s office. And, I worked with just as many independant minded rough n’ ready women as men.

  • I haven’t listened to the show yet (downloading now), but i wanted to respond to Hushd.

    Yes, I think the point is that in the West they try to broaden who would support environmental protection and access beyond the “weekend warriors” to the more traditional baits and bullets folks. There are social differences that sometimes keep them apart.

  • Katherine

    Hushd and emmettoconnell: Funnily enough, one of the examples on tonight’s show (Experiments in Democracy) will be all about bringing the environmental and ranching communities together in Montana.

  • I’m a former resident of western Montana now living in Colorado. During the 2004 election I saw firsthand a monumental local shift from the R’s to the D’s as both state houses went from large R majorities to a D majority for the Senate and a 50-50 split in the House. At the same time, four of the five elected executive branch offices went R to D. Yet Bush still outpolled Kerry 65-35. There are two lessons I took from that election: 1- the shift to the D’s had much more to do with Judy Martz’s governorship (at one point her approval ratings were in the single digits or low teens, if I recall correctly) than with broader political feelings; 2- the very large majority for Bush had much more to do with the nature of Kerry than with support for Bush or national R platform in general.

    As a life-long westerner who has also lived in NYC and DC, it’s been amusing to watch East Coast political handicappers try to figure out western politics. One mistake I see made time again is assuming that the West might as well be called West State, as if the entire 9-state intermountain region is one large state with a homogenous population. The good western politicians understand how far from reality this thought is, but I’m not sure east-based observers do. I see far more difference in politics between Idaho and Montana or Montana and Wyoming than, say, New York and New Jersey or Virginia and North Carolina.

    The David Sirota comment gets close to the interplay of what may seem to be contradictory politics in a national context. In Missoula there were three conversations only: hunting, skiing and fly fishing. In the most liberal city in the state, finding a neighbor who hunted duck or elk was as easy as finding fleece-clad Subaru Outback driver (in other words, just open your eyes). And, in some twist on Take Your Daughter to Work Day, I knew a couple men who brought their teenage daughters on their elk expeditions and I knew one couple who brought their 8-week-old newborn into the woods in season. This was not some redneck backwater, this was Missoula. Point is, there are quite a few people (myself included) who consider themselves both environmentalists and who hunt and see absolutely no contradiction in the association.

  • Hushd

    Peggysue, right on, have to acknowledge Rankin….good call and her name should have been mentioned.

    And on the enviro-hunter discussion, perhaps it is more of a western thing but I grew up in the midwest and considered myself an enviro while hunting. I love Montana for the melting pot that it is with hippies and rednecks and enviros and industry and lowbaggers….ok minus a few of the rednecks because that stuff gets old. We need to break down the walls though. The left (non-partisan) should embrace guns, regionalism, federalism (when appropriate) and rebellion! I’m a new age redneck….I’ll kick your ass and listen to you tell me how it made you feel.

    Now that is over the top Macho for you Peggysue.

    Hush D

  • Hushed… I’ll tell you how I feel about it after I’ve kicked your ass.

    I’m just kidding really – I teach nonviolence so it would not do for me to go around kicking butt in a literal way. Like you I do enjoy the mix of folks you find in Montana: School Marms who hunt Elk, Hippy tree huggers with law degrees, Fly fishing novelists and so on.

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  • Katherine

    peggysue: You’re absolutely right. Just so you know, we were all-too-painfully aware, while producing the hour, that we didn’t have any women. We tried very hard to find some. Unfortunately, those we talked to didn’t quite fit the bill in one way or the other (and, interestingly, none mentioned Jeannette Rankin…). Chelsea did record a piece of tape with a female rancher for the end of the hour — but thematically, by the time we got there, it wasn’t right to include it. Chelsea has posted the audio in a separate feature, though, that you can listen to here.

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