Show-Down on the Potato Farm

In the American heartland, realpolitik is pork politics

KALISPELL, Mont.—As many as 500,000 Montanans will vote today in an election that has, in Montana-speak, grown far too big for its britches.

The Montana senatorial race is on most pundits’ short lists of “toss-up” races. A win here is said to be vital to the Democrats’ battle to reclaim Congress’ upper chamber; so vital, in fact, that by today, the candidates and political parties will have spent close to $20 per voter.

Ostensibly, the race is a microcosm of nationally pressing issues—particularly the war in Iraq—that inspire great passion in the chattering classes.

But working as a foot soldier for the fabled Republican “get out the vote” effort, I have re-learned an important lesson: Local elections are fundamentally local, based on personalities and anxieties.

The Republican is incumbent Senator Conrad Burns, a man with the quintessential “aw, shucks” persona. Amidst volunteers who have come to Montana for the final 72 hours of this closely watched campaign, Burns holds an unfathomably large potato above his head and discusses the relative advantage that Montana nematodes—whatever they are—hold over Idaho’s, and how the bountiful seed potatoes they make often go unrecognized. Making the rounds, he jokes that a recent Smith College graduate looks pregnant. (In fairness, she has something lodged in the front pocket of her Young Republicans sweater.) He also notes that his handlers want to “lock me in a closet” for the remaining hours of the campaign.

This owes to Burns’ fame for off-color jokes, the most recent of which concerns the immigration status of his house painter. Everyone has their favorite Conrad Burns line. I have two. Conrad Burns walks into a federal office building where a young white girl with a nose stud is working as a receptionist. Inquires the Senator: “What tribe are you from?” On a cold December day in Washington, D.C. some years ago when I was a Senate page, Senator Burns entered the Republican cloakroom and declared, “It’s colder than a well-digger’s ass in the Klondike!” Such talk would never fly elsewhere, but most Montanans are endeared to what is termed Burns’ “folksiness.”

This folksiness is what launched Burns, the one-time outsider, to Washington. Now, he is threatened by the thought that “he has been in Washington too long”—a career-ending allegation in Montana, one that is daily conveyed by Democratic attack commercials so prevalent that they often run consecutively on local television.

The down-home demeanor of his Democratic challenger, Jon Tester, does not help Burns. Tester is an obese organic farmer with three missing fingers and a flat-top haircut, whose campaign commercials implore, “Isn’t it time the Senate looked a little bit more like Montana?” When asked, he does not seem to comprehend the niceties of the Patriot Act, rather declaring to great effect, “With things like the Patriot Act, we’d damn well better keep our guns.” This is how a Democrat wins in Montana.

As Iraq dominates the national political landscape, one might expect the candidates to talk about the overseas war. They do, of course, but by far the more popular discussion is who will bring more pork to Montana.

Burns trumpets his seniority and his seat on the Appropriations Committee, which he has used to earmark many millions of dollars for Montana projects.

Tester says Burns isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be, and Montana’s other senator, a Democrat, boasts that he has brought to Montana more money than Burns. Harry Reid, the Democrats’ Senate leader, rushed in weeks ago to assure Montanans that their gravy train will not be derailed, announcing that Tester will be given a seat on the Appropriations Committee if he wins.

Although Montanans have uncritical reverence for pork brought to their state, they also unreservedly hate taxes, so much so that it has become the second most visible issue in the campaign. Tester dubiously claims that Burns supports a “national sales tax;” Burns, incredulous, challenges that Tester wants to tax working folks’ water.

Some of most recent polls show Burns and Tester running even. Politicos, most of all the out-of-state hired guns trawling Montana neighborhoods, realize that a victory for either will mean getting those citizens who care the least to the polls. God forbid it rains or snows, meticulous Republicans say, and prevents the reticent, rural voters they’re counting on from journeying to the polls. In short, a handful of the least civic-minded citizens will decide who Montana’s senator will be and, possibly, who will control Congress.

Whether Democrats or Republicans win, their boosters will speak of a repudiation or a vindication on a grand scale. If the Montana mayhem tells us anything, it’s that our democracy is too tenuous to make such claims truthful.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06-’07 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears regularly.