Montana’s Political Clout

The state has only 1 million of the country’s 325 million people, yet its voice is disproportionately loud in Washington, D.C.

By Myers Reece

Donald Trump Jr. swung by Montana, including Kalispell, last week to stump for Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for the state’s lone U.S. House seat.

The president’s son joined a list of national political figures over the last decade to campaign for Montana candidates. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker threw his support behind Rick Hill’s unsuccessful 2012 gubernatorial run, while Virginia Sen. Jim Webb rallied with Sen. Jon Tester in Helena the same year.

Most notably, Bill Clinton spoke in 2008 at Flathead Valley Community College on behalf of his wife, during her first failed bid for the presidency. Seeing Clinton on the college’s lawn, atop the flatbed of a red Dodge pickup, felt like glimpsing a unicorn: unlikely enough to seem unreal. A month earlier, a young presidential hopeful named Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of adorers in Missoula.

During that primary, both Hillary Clinton and Obama granted exclusive interviews to the Beacon, which, for a recently established startup newspaper run by a bunch of 20-somethings, was as thrilling as it was unexpected.

So, no, Trump’s visit wasn’t unprecedented, but it didn’t seem as out of place as the aforementioned. Rather, it felt like a natural step along Montana’s modern road to national political prominence, a path that has led to Whitefish’s own Ryan Zinke heading up the Interior Department, Sens. Steve Daines and Tester appearing regularly, for better or for worse, in national media sources, and a widely observed May 25 special election between Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist.

Montana has only 1 million of the country’s 325 million people, yet its voice is disproportionately loud in Washington, D.C. This isn’t new. From Mike Mansfield to Pat Williams to Max Baucus, the architect of the Affordable Care Act, the Treasure State has often maximized its paltry representation — two senators and a single congressman — on Capitol Hill. Now, with Zinke, Montana has an influential seat on the president’s cabinet.

For a while, as former Gov. Brian Schweitzer was toying with the idea of running for higher office, perhaps the presidency, he became a national media darling, making the talk-show rounds and occasionally saying things better left unsaid. And there’s a chance we haven’t seen the last of Schweitzer’s bolo tie on a debate stage.

Meanwhile, Tester’s 2012 reelection campaign against Denny Rehberg was one of the most scrutinized in the country, as evidenced by a record $47 million spent on the race. Tester’s 2018 campaign, against whatever well-funded Republican opponent emerges, will have a similarly high national profile, with the U.S. Senate majority likely once again coming down to a few contested seats.

Currently, everyone from the New York Times and Washington Post to the Huffington Post and CNN is having a field day with the Gianforte-Quist showdown, framing it as a litmus test on President Donald Trump’s popularity and a potential foreshadowing of 2018’s midterm election results.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the figurehead of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, announced that he would campaign in Montana for Quist, whom national media outlets have taken to calling a “cowboy poet.”

Between Sanders and Trump Jr., it’s clear that Capitol Hill powerbrokers don’t view our special U.S. House election, prompted by Zinke’s departure, as a quaint little rural affair. You might not enjoy the flood of outside money into our elections, but you’ll have to get used to it. Montana has a seat at the D.C. kingmaker’s table, and there’s no shortage of influential people who want to decide who sits there.