In the wake of the election earlier this month when Republicans ran the table, the only statewide Democrat left standing was one not on the ballot this year — Montana’s senior U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
As the now-standard-bearer for a party that just lost big, Tester answers the question of what the heck happened with a simple answer: the national party’s message just doesn’t work for places like Montana.
“The national Democratic brand has not been solid in rural America for a long time,” Tester in a recent interview. “They haven’t been doing a good job talking about kitchen-table issues.”
In Montana, statewide Republican candidates largely won races more about the national mood than Montana-specific issues. Through footage of people rallying in other states, the “liberal mob” portrayed in campaign television ads was made to seem poised to take local residents’ guns away. Voters were told democracy was teetering on the edge of socialism, though the statewide Democratic candidates generally held fairly moderate views.
“They successfully nationalized the election this year,” Tester said of Republicans. “They successfully made it about Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and Bernie Sanders. They didn’t talk about many issues. They talked more about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and national Democrats. That was the issue.”
Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist and professor at Carroll College in Helena, said the crush of new voters in Montana in the general election — 95,174 more than had ever voted here before — came with a much more partisan lean that made them more susceptible to a Republican nationalization of the election and a push from the top of the ticket.
“(Republican President Donald) Trump has a real connection with rural voters, more so than most presidential candidates in the past,” Johnson said. “It’s ironic because he comes from a big city and has been involved with luxury real estate, but he’s made this connection with rural voters. With the nationalization of politics with Trump at the head of the party, it’s helped Republicans down-ballot in Montana as well, and it’s hard for Democrats to get their message out in trying to localize races.”
While Trump has consumed much of the oxygen over the last four years, Tester said he believes it’s less about the outgoing president than the upcoming opportunities for Democrats.
“I think it’s bigger than that. I think if we blame this only on the Trump voters and the ability to get Trump folks out, I think we’re making a mistake. I think it’s not just a little mistake, it’s a huge mistake,” Tester said. “People who vote for Trump did it because they believed he was going to do something.”
Democrats, Tester said, need to show voters they're the ones who can deliver what they want to see.
From the local, state and federal level, the party needs to talk about fighting for good-paying jobs, building and preserving a robust public education system, fixing crumbling infrastructure, making housing affordable, bringing broadband to places left out, making sure the local hospital keeps its doors open and more.
While a stump on the stock market won’t win them the room, Democrats should pick something like the prices for agricultural goods and make a point, Tester said.
“(Prices) are pitiful. We’re getting more money from the federal government as farmers probably than we’ve ever gotten before. Why? Because ag prices are in the tank. I still believe farmers would rather get their money from the marketplace than a check from the federal government,” Tester said. “I think there’s opportunity there to talk about what you’re going to do to try to make ag more profitable and improve the economy in rural America. And if you improve the economy for production ag, you improve the economy for everyone in rural America. That’s something we absolutely need to talk about.”
The critique of overlooking rural America applies on both sides of the political aisle, Tester said.
“I don’t think either party is doing a good job of talking to rural America. I think rural America is there for the taking by Democrats if they want to go after it.”
The year with the third-highest turnout in state history was Tester’s midterm election win in 2018 over Republican Matt Rosendale. It marked Tester’s most decisive federal-election victory and the first time he won with more than 50% of the vote.
This year Rosendale succeeded in his goal of moving to Congress by beating Democrat Kathleen Williams, a former Bozeman state legislator. Rosendale improved on his 2018 vote total by 103,206. Williams also underperformed in her 2018 race, which she lost to now Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte by 5 points. This year she lost to Rosendale by 12 points, even though Lee Banville, a political analyst and professor at the University of Montana, said her opponent two years ago ran a much stronger race.
Even in the face of this year’s numbers fueled by the increased polarization and nationalization of politics, Tester doesn’t think the door is closed to swinging voters.
After his 2018 win, Tester told National Public Radio part of how he pulled it off was not only talking to people who agreed with him, but also those who didn't. He believes that should still be a prominent part of the Democratic playbook.
“With few exceptions, I think everybody’s swayable and I think this election showed it,” Tester said. “The truth is a lot, maybe even all the swayable votes, the Republicans got (this year). I still think those people are out there. They didn’t all of the sudden go ‘Well, I’ll walk into this.’ They voted the way they did because quite frankly I think they saw Democrats as not addressing the problems they thought were important.”
Another hallmark of the year 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic that's sickened more than 56,000 Montanans and killed 614, kept Democrats from something that’s been crucial for their success — the retail politics of knocking doors.
"Montana is an eyeball-to-eyeball state,” Tester said. “This pandemic didn’t allow for that. There were a lot of candidates out there, including the statewide ones, who were very and rightfully concerned about the pandemic. And that pandemic won’t be around come 2022 or 2024. I think it’s really critically important that all candidates, but Democrats in particular are good at this, get out and talk to voters, have town hall meetings, do those kinds of things.”
Banville said not being able to talk to voters in person likely hurt Democrats, but there’s a bigger question to be answered.
“Is it Montana finishing progression toward conservative?” Banville asked.
From roughly the 1960s on, Banville said Montana has been fairly conservative, which tilts away from the Democratic Party. As the state has grown, it’s made it more difficult for Democrats to put their name and face to every voter across the state's 147,040 square miles.
“Part of this is Montana has gotten bigger, so therefore when (Democrat) Pat Williams was elected to Congress or (Democrat) Brian Schweitzer was winning his first election, Montanans had an expectation of almost personally knowing the candidate. And I think the state’s gotten big enough that’s just not a thing that happens anymore,” Banville said.
“But I do think that there are still Republicans who live in Montana or independents who find themselves being fairly conservative and probably would tip toward Republican naturally who are willing to vote for Democrats they see as authentic and as good people.”
Tester has been one of those politicians. He’s a brand not easily replicated — a farmer from Big Sandy who still flies home to fire up the tractor and not just when it makes a good campaign photoshoot. A self-described moderate, Tester has split with his party over things like the Keystone XL pipeline but supports a woman's right to access reproductive health care and improving upon the Affordable Care Act. The website FiveThirtyEight says he supports Trump's policies about 30% of the time.
The senator said his record in the state helped him fend off Rosendale in 2018.
“I could go back and show how we’ve worked for the state of Montana and had these different points that we had touched on, whether it was veterans or ag policy or whatever it might be,” Tester said.
Though they just took a trouncing, Tester said there’s still a good bench of Democrats to run again in Montana.
“It’s important to note there’s far more cases where people didn’t win on their first show, and then turn around and win when they run later,” Tester said, adding many of the candidates are young, politically-speaking.
As for his role, Tester said he plans to help anyone who seeks it.
“I’m here for input,” Tester said. “I was influenced by a lot of pretty good people who are still around that understand what’s going on in this state. If they need resources, I can certainly connect them up with people who are smart and understand what’s going on.”
His biggest job, though, is to push Democrats nationally to talk about things that connect with voters in places like Montana. Tester is next up for reelection in 2024, and said he hasn't decided if he'll run again.
“We’ve got a lot of issues in rural American that are big challenges, and if you combine that with the fact we’ve had a debt that’s just exploded by Congress by a trillion dollars because of a bad tax package and the fact this pandemic has added to it also, my focus is on the challenges that are out there for this country, particularly from a rural America perspective,” Tester said.
Following how he’s handled past elections, Tester, 64, and his wife will make a decision about his political future after the upcoming midterm.
“And we’ll take that and run with it,” Tester said.