Big Sky Populists Show Dems the Way

Populist Jon Tester beats D.C. Dems' choice for the nomination to target vulnerable Conrad Burns

By David Sirota

The winds of change -- they are a-blowin' hard out here in the heartland, no matter how much Washington, D.C. pretends they aren't. On June 6, in a major upset, populist Democratic state Senate President Jon Tester crushed his primary opponents, becoming the Democratic nominee against vulnerable incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mt.). Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, ran against the Washington Establishment, ignoring those who said he couldn't beat State Auditor John Morrison (D) -- the candidate that Democratic Party powerbrokers in Washington tried to anoint.

In fairness, I think both Tester and Morrison are good Democrats. But, as I saw when I was at Tester's announcement speech last year, and I learned in talking with Tester during the campaign, this is a guy who clearly and unabashedly represents the populist wing of his party (I tried as best as I could to publicly stay out of the primary out of deference to the state party that didn't want to further enflame the already divisive primary battle). His victory will likely send yet more shockwaves through the increasingly insulated and isolated Democratic Establishment in Washington.

That Establishment has either refused to take basic, concrete positions on the key issues of the day like Iraq, or worse, has high-profile factions publicly insulting middle-class voters, such as when former Clintonites on Wall Street insulted those Democrats who are trying to reform America's sellout trade policy.

But as I have written before, Tester -- and other successful Democrats running this year -- are doing exactly the opposite. Back in November, I noted how Tester rejected Washington's advice, and took a strong position on the Iraq War. A few weeks back, I also noted how on critical economic issues like trade. My colleague at the Progressive States Network, Matt Singer, also noted that Tester also took a bold position on health care, saying our system needs fundamental reform.

These are positions that put him squarely at odds with Morrison (who Singer noted spewed Tom Friedman-esque World-Is-Flat corporate PR), and more importantly, at odds with the national Democratic Party and the Big Money interests that control Washington. But his positions put him in sync with voters in Montana and throughout the heartland. Put another way, he made the fight against Big Money's hostile takeover of our government a central theme in his legislative career and in his primary campaign -- and he was, to the great shock of Washington insiders, handsomely rewarded by voters.

There are a lot of lessons to learn from this primary. First and foremost, when Democrats take strong positions and courageously stand up to the powers that be, they are rewarded. In the era of money-drenched, consultant-dominated politics, voters are desperate for authenticity -- and the best way to show you are authentic is to reject the prepackaged talking points from corporate-funded Washington front-groups like the Democratic Leadership Council and actually stand with ordinary people out here in the heartland.

Secondly, the era of television advertising totally and completely dominating politics is over, at least in primaries in smaller states. In such races, candidates can meet almost everyone who is going to cast a vote. That means retail politics, field, free media, online organizing and word of mouth become priceless. Early on in this primary, I praised Tester in The American Prospect for seriously embracing the netroots and painting a contrast between himself, the outsider, and his opponent, more of an insider. Over the course of the next many months, he took that to the next level.

This means that in the future, as the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party (and by extension against the hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests) rages on between populists and elitists, small-state primaries are going to be the high-profile battlegrounds where our side -- the small "d" democrats in the Democratic Party -- are going to crash the gates.

Finally, to those who derided Brian Schweitzer's way of running campaigns in 2004 and labeled him as a fluke, Tester's victory puts that to rest. Schweitzer, as we see, was the sharp tip of the spear, ripping through the thin veneer that Democratic Party insiders have clung to through election loss after election loss after election loss. Schweitzer -- and now Tester (the guy who carried Schweitzer's agenda through the legislature) -- are showing those in their state and throughout the nation that the way to really be a political leader is to reject the D.C. insiders who preach caution; ignore the naysayers who seek to turn politics into bland ad campaigns for soap; and embrace an in-your-face politics that tells people you are dead serious about cleaning up our government.

June 6 was a terrible night for Conrad Burns, not only because one of his primary challengers got almost a quarter of GOP votes, but because Democrats now have Jon Tester carrying the flag against him. Burns barely eked out a victory last time against Schweitzer -- then an unknown first-time candidate. Now, severely damaged by his connections to high-profile corruption scandals, Burns is facing a Schweitzer-style populist -- but one who is better-known than Schweitzer was during his dark-horse Senate bid in 2000. It's Tester Time -- and that means Burns' days in the Senate are numbered.

David Sirota of Helena, Mont., is a writer political strategist and author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government -- and How We Take It Back [Crown]. He writes a blog at

From The Progressive Populist, July 1, 2006

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