Commentary Politics

What ‘Red State’ Democrats Can Learn From Jon Tester’s Victory

Matt Singer & Rachel Huff-Doria

The thread that led to the success of Jon Tester’s campaign also leads to the continued success of progressive organizations within Montana—a love of place that is deeply rooted in Montana’s stories of our past and our vision for our future.

In Montana, love for the state connects folks across party and other lines. As national political observers ask how Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won re-election this past week while other “red state” Democrats lost their campaigns, one clear answer is the way he and his supporters are connected to a sense of place.

From the beginning of his first statewide race, Tester led by emphasizing how quintessentially Montana he is. His first TV ad, released in 2006, famously highlighted his simple $12 flat top haircut. To this day, he continues to work on his family’s farm, the same land that has been in his family for generations. His Republican opponent this cycle, Republican Matt Rosendale, was a shadow of Tester. Rosendale, a Maryland native, has the same flat-top haircut and called himself a rancher, but critics pointed out that he never raised any cattle, just bought a chunk of land after retiring as a real estate developer

No matter how compelling Tester’s story is, it’s also true that he didn’t win this on his own. He benefitted from a genuinely robust and electorally focused organizing infrastructure in his home state. Organizations like Forward Montana, Montana Native Vote, Montana League of Rural Voters, and others work with and against the Democratic Party establishment in smart ways and include the state’s major progressive constituencies: women, urban progressives, youth, progressive farmers and ranchers, Native Americans, LGBTQ Montanans, and unionized workers. Through year-round voter engagement efforts, the prioritization of issues that matter to their members’ lives, and strong relationships with Tester’s team, these organizations maintain greater transparency, communication, and accountability with progressive constituencies than in other “red” states.

In-state relationships and a strong organizing infrastructure that received early funding made a huge difference in this year’s election. Montana had the fifth highest voter turnout rate in the whole country, with Native Americans and young people voting in record-high numbers. Early data compiled by Montana Native Vote shows that 85 percent of Indian Country supported Tester at the polls, while exit polls show that young Montanans voted for him with a 38-point margin. Rural Montana showed up for Rosendale, but the margins weren’t as bad as they would have been without the rural organizing that continues in the state. In an election where the margin of victory was less than 18,000 votes, building relationships with in-state leaders and a wide variety of constituencies proved key.

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In many ways, the same thread that led to the success of Tester’s campaign also leads to the continued success of progressive organizations within Montana—a love of place that is deeply rooted in Montana’s stories of our past and our vision for our future. Montana has a long history of organizing: from union drives in Butte, where workers were killed fighting for a voice on the job, to decades of bold environmental fights to protect and preserve the public lands that make the state so special.

The most successful progressive movements and organizations today steer clear of abstract ideas and national narratives, keeping the focus on a shared past and vision for the future. During the midterms, public lands and education were two of the strongest examples of progressive causes that bridged the bipartisan gap in Montana.

Even as education initiatives failed in other states, Montana renewed the 6-Mill Levy—a funding mechanism for higher education that has been voted on by the public and renewed every 10 years since 1948—by a 26 percent margin. By reminding voters of their past support while linking affordable higher education to the young leaders we hope stay and prosper in Montana, we’re communicating a vision that is both historically Montanan and future-oriented. And by talking about public lands, organizations and candidates were able to focus not on a national message of intangible environmentalism but instead on Montana’s outdoor heritage, thus emphasizing our desire to protect our shared lifestyle of hunting, hiking, and fishing for young Montanans today and tomorrow.

This approach—of grounding our candidates and issue campaigns in locally-rooted narratives—doesn’t just work in Montana. At least from afar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign seemed to personify the district she now represents. She wrote her own opening ad, which featured her family, her subway ride, and her “actual bodega.” Her love for her community was apparent in her message. As Beto O’Rourke ran the strongest campaign of any Democrat in Texas in recent memory, many national institutions saw him as an ally and claimed ideological alignment, ranging from Third Way to Bernie Sanders. But on the ground, O’Rourke was visiting all 254 Texas counties and eating Whataburger. He isn’t a progressive Democrat or a centrist Democrat; he is a Texan.

This organizing isn’t just about electoral power. It’s also about real work on issues. Tester cast a vote against the DREAM Act in 2010. He’s cast much better votes on immigration since. Some of that is because of the backlash he felt nationally, but a lot of it was due to in-state organizations and community members showing up and reinforcing that his actions on immigration matter to his constituents.

In just the past two years, Tester cast a number of votes that surprised national observers of a senator running for re-election in a state that Trump won by 20 points. The conventional wisdom suggested he had to tack right. Instead, he voted against confirming Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, against confirming now-former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and against the GOP’s tax bill. He went even further with the nomination of Ronny Jackson to run the Veterans Administration (VA), releasing a thorough report raising alarming questions about Jackson’s fitness for the role and drawing the ire of President Trump.

To Tester, these were just the natural actions of someone who puts his home state first, always. Montanans, deeply committed to personal freedom and skeptical of corporate power, aren’t aligned with the judicial views of Neil Gorsuch or Brett Kavanaugh. And the state has one of the highest shares of veterans in the nation, people who need the VA to work and who appreciate accountability in its leadership. Tester’s ability to vote against the president (notably drawing four visits from Trump to Montana to unseat him) and still win re-election is due to his assurance to voters that he is acting in the best interests of Montanans and that there is an organizing infrastructure of Montanans who are supporting his decisions.

To be honest, a lot of red states don’t have that quality of electoral or advocacy infrastructure. As underfunded organizations are forced into operating in scarcity mode, they naturally gravitate towards rapid response-style organizing, without resources to plan for the long term. When you’re focused on stopping terrible things from happening, you have a tendency to focus on insider lobbying and mobilization, but you rarely see a path to flip the state house or garner enough votes to take a statewide seat. This leads to a vacuum of year-round voter engagement, a key piece of organizing infrastructure.

Because of a lack of infrastructure, we’re often told a binary story about what red state senators should do on tough votes: either make the tough vote that is also the right thing for people’s lives, electoral consequences be damned, or make the wrong vote for electoral reasons and have it pay off come election season. The latter strategy may have worked for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), but it didn’t work for others.

As the current and past leaders of Forward Montana (which endorsed Tester this election cycle), we have known Tester since his time in the Montana State Senate. While he’s a particularly intelligent and empathetic leader, especially by the standards of the U.S. Senate, our lessons for the future of Congress have to come from Montana itself. We need to recruit gifted candidates that are connected to their home. Organizations need to build an infrastructure that can maintain relationships with candidates, as well as strong relationships with their own memberships through constant voter engagement and outreach.

Looking for lessons from the 2018 midterms, progressives should remember that a winning strategy and authentic narrative need to be grounded in love of place, local stories, and relationships that give way to our vision for the future.

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