Defying the odds and proving the political pundits wrong yet again, Jon Tester, the flat-topped organic farmer from Big Sandy scored a lopsided primary victory over State Auditor John Morrison at the polls Tuesday. And when the sun came up over Montana Wednesday morning, it seemed a little brighter for those who believed all along that Tester is our best bet to oust scandal-plagued Sen. Conrad Burns in the general election this fall.
When Tester first announced his intention to enter the primary race the reaction was sadly predictable. The political pundits tossed Morrison’s piles of money—as well as his political connections and ability to raise even more money—on the scales, weighed them against what Tester had, and pronounced their verdict: Morrison would win hands down.
As it turned out, the pundits weren’t wrong about Morrison’s money—he raised and spent about twice as much as Tester. What they were way wrong about, however, was thinking that money calls all the shots in Montana politics. As Tester proved, it doesn’t.
Perhaps because politics has gotten so stale, so boring and so sleazy, the pundits figured whoever bought the most ads on the boob tube would influence the small percentage of primary voters and that would be that. What they didn’t count on was the ability of Montanans to rally in a thousand small ways to a candidate who inspired and excited them. In the old days—the days before the latest batch of political strategists boiled everything down to money—such a groundswell of support from the populace at large was called a grassroots movement. And boy, does Tester have a grassroots movement going.
It’s been years since we’ve seen this kind of motivation in Montana’s political arena, but few would deny we’re seeing it now. As the tally from the election shows, Tester didn’t just take a key city here or there or appeal to just urban or rural voters—he scored big all across Montana. Those kinds of results simply do not come from some gimmick devised in campaign headquarters or from a numbing flood of cutsie television ads, but from neighbor talking to neighbor, people getting out the word, putting up signs, calling relatives and, most importantly, getting to the polls to cast their votes.
To its regret, the Morrison campaign seriously underestimated the breadth and depth of Tester’s grassroots support and got their butts whipped because of it. But that’s not the only error they made. When the stories of Morrison’s extramarital affair and its possible effect on an investigation by his office hit print, his campaign believed they were being pushed by the Tester campaign—which they were not. Nor were the letters to the editor, the call-in questions or the heated exchanges in the blogosphere. Far from being a campaign tactic, all those reactions were simply the tip of the iceberg as voters took in the information and sought out answers to lingering questions—questions that hounded Morrison until, near the end of the campaign, he began canceling public appearances and relied on soundbites and ads to portray his character.
Montanans, however, prefer their politicians in the flesh—where they can shake hands, look ’em in the eye, ask questions point blank and determine whether they’ve gotten a straight answer or a wandering prevarication in response. While Morrison bunkered up, Tester went directly to the people, who liked what they saw and heard and voted accordingly.
The lesson here is one that will be coming to the Conrad Burns camp soon. Firmly locked into the D.C. money game, Burns continues to throw outlandish fundraisers to squeeze millions out of lobbyists and special interests in the mistaken belief that their money will be able to do what Morrison’s could not. But as Morrison just learned, buying tidal waves of ads simply cannot compete with a statewide grassroots movement. If anything, Tester’s win shows that people are more than ready to replace Burns, and take seriously the question of who is the best person to do just that.
Had the primary election turned out differently, Montanans would have faced a grueling summer of mud-slinging. Burns’ too-cozy relationships with corrupt D.C. lobbyists would have been splashed against Morrison’s affair. As they say in the game, “sex always trumps money,” and, likely as not, Burns’ massive warchest would have gone to pounding in that message ad nauseum.
Now, however, that option has been removed. Given Tester’s record of public service and his squeaky-clean status, it’s far more likely that Montanans will see the focus on Burns’ questionable relationships while Tester gets to talk about his stand on the important issues that affect us all. While Burns has been busy rubber-stamping the Bush agenda that has all but destroyed America’s credibility in the world community, trashed the environment and emptied the national treasury, Tester has been busy passing legislation to take Montana into a new day. Tester’s accomplishments, like the man himself, are real—not theoretical. And unlike Burns, who continually touts his ability to bring home the bacon, Tester managed to get it done within a balanced budget, not by saddling every man, woman and child in the United States with $30,000 in national debt.
While Burns tries to motivate an old and tired constituency with his worn-out phrases and indecipherable logic, Tester finds himself riding a wave of fired-up Montanans who are ready for new ideas and new leadership from an articulate, reasonable and fiscally responsible candidate. Instead of kow-towing to the rich and powerful, Tester has inspired a huge following of young people who realize their future may well rest on the outcome of the next election.
In the end, what will bring Conrad Burns down is the same thing that brought victory to Tester in the primary—a motivated, statewide grassroots campaign by Montanans who simply want, once again, to be proud of those we send to Washington to represent us.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.