This will be a review of a political lesson I first encountered in 2012, and only recently came to fully understand. It involves Montana Senator Jon Tester and his opponents Denny Rehberg and Dan Cox. Party designations are mere surface phenomena, but it is important to know that Cox ran as a “third-party” Libertarian.
Tester was first elected in 2006, defeating 18-year Senator Conrad Burns, a well-entrenched player who could only be unseated by a scandal. One was provided – Jack Abramoff, a candidate for our “Get Out of Jail Free Card” series (incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution, Cumberland, Maryland, a minimum security prison, inmate #27593-112). Abramoff intimated that he got whatever he wanted from Burns’ office, which might well have been true. The important feature, however, of that relationship is that it received mainstream media attention (see here and here, for example). Normally corruption is ignored in our news. This means that Burns was being targeted and tainted, and was on his way out of office. His replacement had already been selected.
What was going on for real? No one is talking, but I speculate that Burns, useful and steadfast in his work while in office, was aging and perhaps exhibiting signs of dementia. He was unwilling to step down, so that outside forces had to engineer his defeat. Any number of planted negative press stories could have worked, and Abramoff was chosen due to his then high-profile. Note, however, that all coverage of the Burns/Abramoff connection was national, and ignored in the Montana media. Montanans are easily influenced by any national notice, as residents are attention-starved.
A feint was in the works. Among Burns’ most important financial backers was a group known as the “Timber Lobby,” companies like Weyerhaeuser, Boise Cascade, Georgia Pacific. Montana’s politicians at all levels and of “both” parties are aware of this lobby, and are usually intimidated if not actually indebted. Burns was a faithful servant, but since he was on the way out, the Lobby decided to pull a man from the “left” into play. That was the feint. It worked on me.
Jon Tester ran in 2006 as a progressive and environmentalist. I voted for him. He received strong Internet support from “friends” placed on various Montana blogs, a relatively new tactic. These “personal friends” pushed him as an honest man, a simple farmer, a man who loved the environment and who supported progressive causes.
None of that was/is true. Once elected he quickly sidled up to then Senator Max Baucus, an extremely corrupt man, and abandoned his base. He even called environmentalists “extremists.” He picked up the Burns agenda for Montana wild lands, introducing a bill called the “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act,” retreaded Burns/Baucus legislation written, as all legislation is, by industry lobbyists. He pushed it relentlessly, but it never passed.
To this day, he does photo-ops for progressive causes, and I often see his face on Facebook pushing things like Indian Health or (laughably, as we will see) overturn of Citizens United.
The above image, a Photoshop collage, was used to push the Tester image as a simple dirt farmer. In my judgment, the man does not know the end of the shovel to use. If anything, he is landed gentry, a gentleman farmer. It is a Montana tradition.
This brings us to 2012, and the belated lesson. Denny Rehberg, also landed gentry, was running ahead in the polls, and would coast to victory without some deus ex machina intervention, which came about in the form of dark money. At least a million dollars was directed to Tester’s benefit through a tiny group called Montana Hunters and Anglers. Television ads were targeted at Rehberg voters urging them to support Dan Cox, the Libertarian! The strategy worked, and enough Rehberg voters were siphoned over to Cox to give Tester a comfortable margin of victory: 48.6%, Rehberg 44.9%, Cox 6.6% (unprecedented for the Libertarian Party).
What lessons do I finally grasp from this spectacle?
- There was no interference from above in this campaign, that is, votes were counted and the result reflects actual voter preferences.
- Had the strategy not worked, had Rehberg prevailed, c‘est la vie. Participants and their backers fought it out in the trenches, but the outcome was of no consequence to real power. Neither Tester or Rehberg would ever lead a revolution.
- There are many ways to toss an election. Electronic voting machines can be used in a pinch to favor outcomes, but for the most part, there is no need for such monkey business. When all candidates are under control, our elections are both inconsequential and clean.
- Third parties are often useful to the two sanctioned parties, and so are allowed ballot access. In this case, the Libertarians were used to advance the Democrat.
- Voters are generally clueless.