Authenticity in Montana politics is as essential as a ten-gallon Stetson or bolo tie on the campaign trail. Relegated to the periphery of national politics for decades, the country’s fourth largest state appears set to decide the fortunes of a possible Democratic Senate majority. Incumbent Jon Tester from Big Sandy, a small farming community in the north-central plains, and Congressman Denny Rehberg, a denizen of Montana’s largest city, battle and continue to fight a proxy war waged by superstar donors and lobbyists for what, up until 2008, was a staunchly red state.
Montana often fails to conform to any set political designation. Women were first granted the right to vote in Montana in 1914, before universal suffrage was declared in 1920. Republican Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress and famously cast the only votes against a declaration of war in 1918 and 1941. Despite relying heavily on natural resource extraction to further its economic fortunes, Montana included a guarantee for a healthy environment in its state constitution. Only once in the last ten elections did Montana vote for a Democrat (Bill Clinton in 1992), however Democrat Max Baucus, one of the longest-serving Senator’s, has been in office nearly 34 years.
These political peculiarities make for an uncertain electoral victory for either candidate. One of the few certainties throughout this campaign, however, has been its ugliness. With so much deemed at stake by party operatives in Washington, an inordinate of campaign money inundated the race as soon as Rehberg declared his candidacy. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie flew to Billings for a fundraiser, where he decried Tester, an organic Kamut farmer from a town with a population of less than 600, as inauthentic and phony. Almost every negative ad focusing on Tester is replete with a picture of Barack Obama, with whom he is closely allied.
Tester relies heavily on the Democratic base support, in Montana’s case, the high population areas of Missoula (home of the University of Montana) and the union, mining-rich city of Butte. Rehberg is blessed with a much easier path to victory. His supporters dot the farm and ranchlands of Eastern Montana, like red barns in an unimaginably beautiful and equally vast landscape. Democratic support remains checkered throughout the state, with several historically Republican counties flipping for Tester in 2008, when he defeated Conrad Burns of Jack Abramoff infamy.
Like a portrait of a Montana summer sunset, this election has been dazzling and breathtaking at moments. Crowds flocked to the University’s Adams Center to watch Pearl Jam (bassist Jeff Ament grew up down the road from Tester in Big Sandy) for a fundraiser. Big Republican figureheads poured into the state this summer, decrying big government Democrats even as the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture’s forest fighting crews battled flames across the state.
Just like the main conservative narrative across the country, the message of the Republicans in Montana has been to confuse, confound, and conflate. Thus far, it has succeeded. The race remains a dead heat heading into the last week. Tester, who fashions himself more of a farmer than politician, faces a fight for his political life. Rehberg, a real estate tycoon and faux rancher, desperately wants to return to a Washington he so cynically and derisorily derides on the well-worn campaign trail across the savagely beautiful and stunningly complex Montana canvas.