Populist Sen. Jon Tester won a tough reelection race in the red state of Montana, winning nearly 17 percent more votes than President Obama despite his opponent’s repeated attempts to tie the two together.
His key decision: To campaign with a mix of libertarian and progressive themes that always put him on the side of ordinary people fighting the powerful, while casting his Tea Party-allied opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg, as a land developer solidly allied with the powerful, whether in business or government.
Tester prided himself on his genuine Montana farm background and sharply contrasted himself with Rehberg, a land developer, not a rancher. In Tester’s words, “Mansion Ranchin’ Ain’t Ranchin’.”
He attacked Rehberg for supporting the Patriot Act, a national ID bill, and legislation granting broader power to the Department of Homeland Security. He emphasized his own efforts to protect public lands from private exploitation and his support of Pell grants, Medicare and Social Security. His stand against Citizens United – lambasting the corrupting influence of outside corporate money in Montana – and his criticism of his opponent’s agenda of tax breaks for outsourcing, fit squarely into his populist campaign. It proved popular; a statewide initiative calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United that voters were also deciding on Election Day passed by a three-to-one margin.
He touted his votes against the Wall Street bailout and the auto industry bailout as examples of how he stands up to corporate interests in Congress.
It worked because Tester stoked his image as a genuine Montana farmer not only willing to go up against big money but also big government to protect the interests of working people. He recognized that people in his state depend on Social Security and Medicare and believe they worked hard to earn both of them. He also reflects Montana’s independent streak, which made his opposition to the Patriot Act, the Wall Street and auto industry bailouts, and outside special interest money flowing in due to a bad Citizens United Supreme Court decision stand out.