Tester is not your average farmer, of course. He's a former public-school music teacher and a successful politician, the president of the Montana state senate. But in April, in the midst of a hot primary race, Tester took five days off from the campaign to seed his 1,800-acre farm in the eastern Montana flatlands. "Look, I do the things real people do. I plow, I seed, I harvest. I do some of my best thinking on my tractor," Tester told me as he campaigned in Whitefish, Mont., last week.
The U.S. Senate race in Montana promises to be iconic. Tester's opponent is the three-term incumbent, Senator Conrad Burns, who achieved national notoriety as the recipient of $150,000 from associates of the felonious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who later told Vanity Fair, "Every appropriation we wanted [from Burns' committee], we got ..." Burns, who has said he wished Abramoff had never been born, is a Republican in a state that favored George W. Bush over John Kerry by 18 points in 2004. But he knows he's in a very difficult race, and the g.o.p.'s first campaign ad of the general election went straight to the heart of Tester's candidacy: his haircut. It features a barber who says, "Fella comes in for a trim on his flattop because he's running for U.S. Senate. Guess he didn't want anybody to know he opposes a gay-marriage ban. Thinks flag burning is a right. And supports higher taxes. So I told him, 'You're gonna need a lot more than a haircut to cover up all that' ... Didn't leave much of a tip either."
To which the Montana Democratic Party immediately responded with an ad that replayed the "tip" line of the ad and then went on: "Here's a tip. The man attacking Jon Tester is an actor. A fake, sent by Senator Burns' Washington friends to tell lies about Jon Tester ... It's bad enough that Burns took thousands of dollars from sleazy lobbyist Jack Abramoff's associate and then changed his vote ..." And so on.
Clearly, we are about to have a fun year in our beloved democracy. The Republican strategy is simple: focus on the really important issues like flag burning and gay marriage and keep accusing the Democrats of wanting to cut and run in Iraq. This time, however, the Democrats will be fighting back. In Virginia, for example, the campaign of Democratic nominee Jim Webba decorated Marine and a former Republicanresponded to a Republican ad that accused him of supporting flag burning by saying, "People who live in glass dude ranches"Webb's opponent, Senator George Allen, spent summers working on ranches while Webb was in Vietnam"should not question the patriotism of real soldiers who fought and bled for this country on a real battlefield."
Not every Democratic candidate is a populist this yearafter all, Hillary Clinton is running for re-electionbut Webb, Ohio's Democratic Senate candidate Sherrod Brown and a raft of congressional candidates are running as no-holds-barred gutbucket populists, and most of the other Democratic candidates have touches of populism in their pitches. In Tennessee, for example, moderate Democrat Harold Ford Jr. has embraced the right-wing House Republican immigration plan in his Senate campaign. "I don't think we ran an ad where [Republican beer baron] Pete Coors wasn't seen wearing a tuxedo," says Mandy Grunwald, who advised Colorado's successful Democratic Senate candidate Ken Salazar in 2004. "It's gotten to the point where every campaign is a populist campaign, and the strongest populist argument we have is the Republicans' fiscal irresponsibility back in Washington."
Populism, historically, has been an angry political tropebut a new aw-shucks version of the little guy's lament has been growing out West with the success of candidates like Salazar and Montana's Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer. Asked about alternative fuels in his first debate with Burns, Tester went full-court farmer. "If I weren't here right now," he said, "I'd be out getting a vegetable press so I could press my own oil to burn in my tractors and trucks." There wasn't much Burns could say to that. He had been out-Montana'd. He tried to blame the Democrats for blocking energy legislation. "Last time I checked," Tester shot back, "your party controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress." Which may be the ultimate comeback Democrats have this year.