Senator Jon Tester on Democrats and Rural Voters: ‘Our Message Is Really, Really Flawed’
Mr. Tester, a Montana farmer, detailed in an interview how Democrats had failed to connect with many voters: “You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people.”
Dec. 16, 2020Updated 9:26 a.m. ET
President Trump visited Montana four times in 2018 as part of the Republican Party’s attempt at unseating Senator Jon Tester. It didn’t work: Mr. Tester was re-elected that year to a third term.
But last month Mr. Tester’s Republican colleague from Montana, Senator Steve Daines, rolled to re-election against a formidable and well-funded Democratic rival, Gov. Steve Bullock.
Why did Mr. Tester prevail while Mr. Bullock lost? And more to the point, why do most Democrats keep faring so poorly in rural America?
Mr. Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, Mont. — and the only full-time farmer in the Senate — has a few ideas. He lays them out at length in his new book, “Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,” a memoir that doubles as a policy manifesto.
He also discussed his views in a recent interview with The New York Times. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Beyond President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, which is no small thing, this was a difficult year for your party, and especially in rural areas. Why?
I think showing up is a fundamental rule of politics, and I don’t know that we showed up. Because of Covid, we didn’t show up on the campaign trail. And in a state like Montana, you have to give people a reason to vote for you or they’ll vote Republican — they’ll default to Republican. And I think that hurt us greatly in 2020. The Republicans, for the most part, didn’t see the pandemic as near as a threat to health as some of the Democrats did.
Do you think that the images of riots and arson in American cities may have motivated rural folks to vote for Republicans more than the people who actually lived in some of those cities?
Yes. And then what we didn’t do is we didn’t respond to them. We didn’t come out with strong advertisements saying: “Rioting, burglary, is not demonstration and it’s not acceptable. And you’d be punished by the full extent of the court if I’m in a position of leadership.” We didn’t come out with a very strong pushback on that, and certainly wasn’t timely when it was time.
How do you balance support for law enforcement with accountability for police officers who break the law?
You approach it from a standpoint that we’re going to do our level best to make sure we have the best-trained folks that we can on the beat, whether you’re in Big Sandy, or Great Falls, or wherever you’re at in the state of Montana.
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And I think the whole idea about defunding police is not just bad messaging, but just insane. And I’ll tell you why. The area where we have the greatest poverty in the state of Montana is Indian Country. And where do we need more police officers than anywhere else? Indian Country. I mean, that’s a fact. Because of poverty, crime is more prevalent. We need more police officers, not less.
Can Democrats go on the offensive in rural America?
Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband. And then I would say one other policy issue is how some Republicans want to basically privatize public education. That is very dangerous, and I think it’s a point that people don’t want to see their public schools close down in Montana.
Is the issue for Democrats in rural areas the appeal of President Trump, or is this a longer-term structural problem for the party?
There’s no doubt about it, he has an appeal in rural America. I can’t figure it out, but there’s no denying it.
But I will also tell you I think there’s a long-term structural issue. And by the way, I’ve had this conversation with Chuck Schumer [the Senate Democratic leader] several times — that we have to do a better job developing a message so that rural Americans can say, “Yeah, those guys, they think like I do.” Because that’s what Trump has right now.
I can go into the list of things that might be insane about this president, but the truth is that rural people connect more with a millionaire from New York City than they do with the Democrats that are in national positions.
So that tells me our message is really, really flawed, because I certainly don’t see it that way.
We do not have a — what do I want to say — a well-designed way to get our message out utilizing our entire caucus. So we need to do more of that. You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people; it ain’t gonna sell. And quite frankly, I don’t know that you can have Jon Tester go talk to a bunch of rich people and tell them what they need to be doing.
Some Democrats believe they are never going to establish a durable Senate majority because of the nature of every state having two senators and the party’s difficulties with rural voters. When you hear that, does that tick you off?
Yeah, it does. Yeah, it does.
Because the problem isn’t that the country’s skewed against the Democrats; the problem is that the Democrats have not done a very good job talking about what we believe in.
If there’s one mistake that is made way, way, way too often by folks in public service, it’s that you walk into a room and who does most of the talking? The senator.
Now, some forums that’s what the people want. But for the most part if you’re in a town hall, and you let people tell you what they’re thinking, let them tell you what’s going on — and then search into your mental database to find out if there’s anything that we’ve done to help solve that problem — then maybe you can have a conversation. But to walk in and say, “You need to think this, and this is what I believe is the right thing to think,” that switch goes off.
In 2008 Barack Obama cracked 40 percent of the vote in a lot of rural America. Flash forward 12 years and Joe Biden is in the 20s in some of these counties. At this time 10 years ago, South Dakota had one Democratic senator, North Dakota had two, Montana had two. What has happened in about 10 years’ time?
You know where Barack Obama spent Fourth of July in 2008?
Butte, Mont. He showed up. Now, he didn’t win much in it, but he did a hell of a lot better than people thought he was going to do because he showed up.
What has happened in Montana as far as losing Max Baucus’s seat, and in North Dakota and in South Dakota, I think speaks to the fact that we’re not speaking to rural America. And look, Steve Bullock lost [this year’s Senate race in Montana] for a number of reasons. One was they nationalized it. They totally nationalized his race. They tried to do it to me, too. What I had that Steve didn’t have was there wasn’t a damn pandemic, and I could go out. And we did, man. We showed people that I was not A.O.C., for Christ’s sake.
You said, “Our party should stand for three words: ‘opportunity for everyone.’” Democrats always complain that they can’t distill their message onto a bumper sticker. But that’s three words — could that fit on a sticker?
Yeah, it could — it could work, yeah. It means you take care of the folks who need help, you give them opportunity.
In your book, you challenge Donald Trump Jr. to a day of “pickin’ rock” on your farm. Does your offer still stand?
You’re goddamn right.
You lost your home county in 2018 even though you exceeded 50 percent statewide. Did that personally sting you, and does that speak to the larger structural problems facing the party?
Look, for sure. I mean, yeah, I would love to win my home county, but it is very red.
How much of that is just people living on Facebook?
It is a big part of it, right? I’ve got good friends of mine, I might add, really, really good friends of mine, lifelong friends, that quite frankly say stuff that I go: “Really? That’s what you think? That’s crazy.”
When you started in state politics in 1998, I’m guessing that you had many more weekly and daily papers in Montana. And now people are getting their news from Facebook every morning.
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And all from people that have the same view.
Your seat was once held by Mike Mansfield, the former Senate Democratic leader, whose tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery simply reads, “Pvt., U.S. Marine Corps.” Do you think any of your Senate colleagues will have a tombstone that modest?
[Laughs] Hopefully my tombstone will say “Jon Tester …”