Wednesday morning I had a chance to spend an hour with Jon Tester, one of 2 major candidates to replace tired old Sen. Conrad Burns in Montana. Tester is a farmer in north central Montana and is President of the State Senate. Tester is a real farmer -- the type who actually grows things that are good to eat -- a lot of people who tout themselves as farmers these days are really just landlords who are only skilled at casing subsidy checks.
It is another sign of good tidings for Democrats that there is an active primary for the Senate nomination in a deeply red state to run against an established Senator. Tester's opponent in the primary is John Morrison, the State Auditor and a trial lawyer. Either one of them would be a huge improvement over Burns who is still running on a sort of old west, yes I wear boots, don't like environmentalists and eat lots of beef platform. Somewhere along the line he succumbed to the charms of lobbyist Jack Abramhoff. But this relationship is no Brokeback Mountain -- in fact Burns has unofficially adopted a slogan "I Don't Know Jack." He won't win an Academy Award either -- Burns has already lost the competition for Best Liar.
Tester is no vegetarian, has a flat-top haircut, wears boots too that were cleaner than mine and exudes Big Sky country in a natural way. Some politicians ooze ambition and big plans. In contrast, Tester comes across as a guy who really would be happy if he only visited Washington once or twice to see the Smithsonian and the monuments but who feels called to service on the national level out of a sense of responsibility, genuine alarm at the direction of the country and commitment to his small town Great Plains roots. It takes all kinds to make a Democratic Senate. Tester makes the case that a farmer has a better chance of beating Burns than a lawyer, that made sense to me. As a US Senator Tester would be in a minority even if the Democrats take control -- unlike the vast majority of Senators he probably does not see someone in the mirror every morning who should be President of the United States. Our country, however, could do worse.
I was most impressed that Tester represents an authentic voice of rural America. In his opening monologue he lamented that his state exports a valuable crop every year and gets nothing in return. The crop consists of young people who see no future on farms and small towns. Tester's message reminds me of freshman Senator Ken Salizar of Colorado who stressed his rural roots in a winning US Senate campaign in 2004. Tester also stressed energy policy. In a state with abundant resources that should be in the forefront of sustainable energy development, middle class citizens are stretched further every year to pay for skyrocketing oil and gas bills.
I liked Jon Tester. I'm from Missouri, he showed me something. Tester has impressed lots of netroots activists. I hope that is not the kiss of death. He needs money. Campaign money goes a lot further in Montana than in most states. An investment in Jon Tester might not produce flash and sizzle but this seems to be a politician who would deliver a steady return. Montana represents one of the very best chances for a Democratic pickup in 2006. Check out his website, www.testerforsenate.com.