The Democrats' Last, Best Hope

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

Sen. Jon Tester hunts, farms, has seven fingers, and could well determine his party's fate in 2012. So why are they calling him a sellout?

Jon Tester, United States senator, is face down in the mud. Earlier today, Tester and his wife, Sharla, drove from Great Falls, Mont., to their home, T-Bone Farms, 80 miles northeast. It's a journey the Testers have been making nearly every weekend since Jon joined the Senate in January 2007. As usual, they followed the Teton River through sloping sandstone canyons and out onto a vast expanse of flat, treeless farmland, with only the occasional man-made interruption: the United Grain silos in Kershaw, the Ace High Casino in Loma, a billboard about chewing tobacco. "Quitting Was Tough," it said, "But I'm Tougher." The trip took 80 minutes.

Not everyone, however, enjoyed such a pleasant drive. After turning down Son Lane, the long, muddy path that leads to Tester's 1,800-acre farm, the senator's press secretary, Aaron Murphy, got stuck in the muck. Now Tester--and his red Case tractor--are trying to pull him out. Tester loops a set of chains around the Ford Fusion's rear wheels. He tells Murphy to put it in neutral and straighten out. He climbs into the cab, reverses the rig, and drags his staffer's car backward out of the mud. But when Tester bends down to remove the chains, he can't quite get them loose. First he's hunched over, tugging. Then he's on his knees. "Damn things," he says. Finally, Tester lowers himself onto his ample belly--he's about 6 foot 1, nearly 300 pounds, with a Roger Maris flattop and a left hand that's missing its three middle fingers, which were severed by a meat grinder when he was 9--and squints into the chassis. Seconds later, he frees the stubborn links. "Got 'em," he says, standing back up. He doesn't bother to brush the mud from his chest.

Tester is not the most powerful senator in Washington, and he's far from the most polished. But because his rural constituency will help determine who controls Congress, and perhaps even the presidency, after 2012, he's about to become one of the most important. When Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana's best-known Republican, launched his own Senate bid in February, Tester's chances for reelection plummeted. He's only the tip of the rural iceberg. According to Charlie Cook, the Capitol Hill handicapper, nine Senate races now qualify as "tossups." Four will test the staying power of Democratic incumbents: Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Tester. Three will take place in states where Democrats are retiring: Virginia, New Mexico, and North Dakota. And all seven of these contests will largely be decided by people more like Jon Tester than Chuck Schumer. The math is simple: if Democrats can't connect with small-town voters, they will lose the Senate next November--and make it difficult for President Obama, who held his own among rural Americans in 2008, to recapture states like North Carolina that put him over the top last time around.

But Tester, who was elected with strong support from the netroots, is in a special bind. By doing what he says he was sent to Washington to do--represent his rural constituents--Montana's junior senator is beginning to irk the activists and fundraisers who propelled him to victory in the first place. In December, Tester voted against the DREAM Act, which would've created a pathway to citizenship for the foreign-born children of illegal immigrants. His strategists insist that a yea vote would have sunk the senator in anti-"amnesty" Montana, but Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, whose followers filled Tester's coffers with $343,000 in 2006, was furious anyway. "He is -- the Democrat I will most be happy to see go down in defeat," Moulitsas wrote. "And he will." Tester was undeterred. As they hammered out April's shutdown-averting budget, legislators stripped every environmental add-on from the package except one: a plan to end federal protections and allow hunting of the region's gray wolves, which prey on livestock and game. …