On a sparkling, knuckle-chapping morning in the middle of October, a healthy crowd braves a snarl of outgoing RVs and incoming semis on Missoula's booming Reserve Street drag to meet with Rick Hill, Montana's sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives .
Outside the Joker's Wild Casino, the sun shines. Inside, in a din of talk, smoke and the shrill electronic pulse of low-stakes gambling, Hill himself beams with the golden light of a man certain he's a winner. Although most folks seem too intent on the caprices of chance to notice, for Hill this visit to Missoula's sprawling outskirts is hardly a matter of nickles and dimes.
Indeed, on arriving, the freshman Republican nabs a $1,000 donation from a developers' political action committee. Then, it's upstairs to chat up a room of rock-ribbed GOP stalwarts, each of whom has shelled out $50 for the privilege of noshing soup and potato chips with their man.
The battle pits Hill against Robert "Dusty" Deschamps, Missoula County's former prosecutor. The race unfolds as a study in contrasts: Hill's conservatism-a creed he delivers in smooth, moderate language even as his voting record bows deeply to the right-against his challenger's craggy, homegrown persona, and a political agenda stemming from the Democratic Party's roots in labor and farms.
"I hear this stuff, too, about the 'do-nothing' Republican Congress," Hill says, taking on a coast-to-coast Democratic mantra. "If balancing the budget, saving Medicare and, finally, putting money aside to save Social Security for the first time in 40 years is doing nothing, then I guess we've done nothing."
The incumbent congressman knows this visit to Joker's Wild means more financial and electoral grist for his campaign against Deschamps, whom he's already outspent more than two-to-one. As of Thursday, October 15, the incumbent had attracted $978,620 to Deschamps' $523,208, and a week before the election, Hill staffers in Helena said they'd cracked the $1 million mark.
If polls released in mid-October hold true, Hill's headed back to the Hill. Back, he says, to continue the work he started after beating Democrat Bill Yellowtail for the open House seat in 1996, work that includes efforts at tax reform and special attention to landing federal projects bolstering Montana's economy.
At stake is control of America's second largest, most populous congressional district and Montana's only House seat-and in a chamber where the GOP's majority survived on a total of just 12,000 votes in 11 close races around the country in '96, potentially much more. Everything from public land regulation to the privatization of Social Security remains on the table for the upcoming Congress, which will likely run roughshod over a decidedly lame-duck Bill Clinton.
The New York Times, for one, has identified Hill as one of a dozen vulnerable Republican incumbents, but onlookers would be hard pressed to find any exposed weaknesses in his performance at Joker's. Hill's known for a frenetic pace on the campaign trail, an efficiency tempered by shatterproof calm. At the casino, Hill doesn't disappoint. His suit is razor sharp, his grin fast, his handshake manful-he's ready to rumble.
Despite the fundraising gap, however, Deschamps has more money left in the bank as the race hits the home stretch. The last days of the campaign should see Deschamps' final blitz, which he hopes will turn into a last-minute upset. In ads and interviews, Deschamps excoriates Hill for Montana's bottom-scraping wages and the crisis in crop prices that has farmers in the state's northern tier up in arms.
Not that those attacks will much move the minds of the bluehaired, old-line GOP matrons and roughneck conservatives in Western garb gathered at Joker's. Hill's comfortably in his element. He takes his jacket off, rolls his shirtsleeves and launches into fluent wonk-speak in answer to a torrent of questions.
With the federal budget, all half-trillion of it, fresh off the floor of Congress, he notes, he's finally able to devote himself wholeheartedly to defeating Deschamps. "The Republic is safe, at least for a few months," Hill jokes.
Hill goes on to extoll the new budget as a true compromise bringing many good things to Montana-the purchase of Lindbergh Lake in the Swan Valley, the restoration of the scenic Beartooth Highway, the use of the budget surplus to shore up Social Security.
"People on the left forget that we were elected to cut taxes and restore power to local governments and communities," Hill says. "So when we do those things, they don't feel we've accomplished anything. I'm sure Dusty feels that way, because we haven't increased the power of Washington, D.C."
Thus, Hill encapsulates the work he's done in the 105th Congress for the campaign trail. The spiel has enough partisanship for flavor, but in all it seems even handed, reasonable and focused on the nuts and bolts of government.
Opponents, however, point out that this kind of talk lets Hill sound more moderate than high marks from groups such as the American Conservative Union and Christian Coalition indicate. He's reckoned one of the most conservative members of Congress by many liberal groups. The American Civil Liberties Union and the United Auto Workers each give him exactly zero positive points, and the League of Conservation Voters offer a paltry 13 percent approval ratings.
Hill's voting record, Deschamps supporters offer, reflects the incumbent's rightward lean. In his two years in Congress, Hill voted to dock $50 million from the National Endowment for the Arts, to override President Clinton's veto of a bill banning late-term abortions, to fund road building in Alaska's Tongass Wilderness and to restrict unions' ability to place organizers in workplaces. The latter measure passed the House by two votes.
Deschamps goes so far as to say Hill's been a disaster for Montana, at the beck and call of the big-spending corporations and industry lobbies. "He says he's out working hard for jobs," Deschamps says. "Well, on his watch, we've gone from 46th to 50th in income, gotten to have the highest per capita rate of people working two jobs and we're now the poorest state in the Union.
"Agriculture is on its knees. If that's how Rick Hill thinks he's been working hard for agriculture, I'm aghast."
Hill counters that Deschamps is critically out of touch with an electorate that wants smaller government. He's been doing the people's work, he claims, making sure the West's voice is heard inside the Beltway, looking out for voters who chose him over Bill Yellowtail, a Democratic veteran of the state legislature and the oft-demonized federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Montana voters, who as recently as 1994 bucked the Republican riptide to give liberal Democrat Pat Williams his ninth consecutive term, seem poised to tap Hill again. That is unless Deschamps, who's gained a lot of ground since Lee Enterprises' polls this month had him trailing the incumbent by 36 points, can convince Montanans that their bread-and-butter future rides on voting for him.
Perhaps because he's able to handle even the most obtuse policy questions with grace, Hill hardly seems like one of the bull-roarers of the Republican Revolution. In style, if not in substance, he's certainly a far cry from Montana's last Republican representative, Ron Marlenee, a yahoo given to wearing Elmer Fudd caps on the floor of the people's assembly.
Deschamps contends, though, that Hill deserves the same fate voters ultimately dealt Marlenee-defeat.
Dusty Deschamps' campaign headquarters sit in an anonymous building, tucked behind a gas station on Missoula's west side. Young volunteers work phones and stuff envelopes, chasing love and money under the watchful eye of finance director Mike Barton, a staffer for former Rep. Williams, uniformed for battle in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.
Amidst the tumult, the candidate himself can often be found snowed-under behind a desk piled high with paperwork, chatting to supporters and reporters, sipping from a McDonald's cup or gas station coffee mug. A dog named Ginger sometimes flops at his feet, and boxing gloves-emblems of a certain combative spirit, perhaps-hang over the door.
Deschamps insists that Democratic hopes live on in the race against Hill. "I feel like we're running at least even with the guy," he says. "That Lee poll, something's haywire with it. It's dramatically different from our polls.
"It's unbelieveable to imagine that Hill's gone from being the least popular politician in Montana to the second most popular literally in a month."
Deschamps claims anger is mounting against Hill-anxiety stoked by Montana's descent to the bottom of the national wage table and grain prices right out of the 1930s. The descendent of French-Canadian ranchers who settled Montana four generations ago plays to those frustrations with rhetoric straight from the New Deal script-an appeal to renew the alliance between workers and farmers that was once his party's very spine.
"You see bankruptcies, defaults and bank failures all over the place in Eastern Montana," says Deschamps. "You can't buy a pair of jeans in Malta anymore because the only store that sold those sorts of goods has gone under. The agriculture crisis, I think, has been particularly helpful to me. The people who've been hit the hardest tend to vote Republican, and the Republicans have let them down and let them down badly."
Clearly, the congressional hopeful is counting on the fact that his populist message will resonate with voters in a time of political apathy, economic uncertainty and brewing constitutional crisis. In particular, Deschamps' master plan for snatching victory from the apparently well-ensconced Hill revolves around cracking open a well spring of discontent in rural Montana.
To that end, Deschamps has hit Great Falls, the urban center of the Hi-Line's expanse and the Big Sky grain belt, at least once a week. Hill's predecessor, Pat Williams, is predictably partisan in his support for Deschamps, stressing that this gambit-call it the Northern Strategy-can work, especially for a Montana homeboy like Deschamps.
"Dusty talks farmer," Williams says. "He's been very well accepted by a farm community that's been ravaged by stupid Republican farm policy. And, he talks like a prosecuting attorney. Montanans like that.
"He's a good mix, politically, between the more conservative eastern district and the more liberal western district."
The potential for crossover appeal hasn't escaped Deschamps, who works cattle himself on the family spread near Frenchtown-a point he plays up on the campaign trail. But a look at the donations fueling his run at Hill reveals a lefty heart beating inside his weather-beaten chest.
Most of his half-million dollar bankroll comes from organized labor and lawyers. Deschamps is past president of the National District Attorney's Association, and has assiduously worked connections from that tenure. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America gave Deschamps $10,000.
With his moderate environmental politics and solid stance on raising the minimum wage, he's locked tight the support of the Montana AFL-CIO. The ironworkers' union and the United Transportation Union both came through with $10,000 donations.
"Nationwide, there's this rush toward the big getting bigger," Deschamps says. "We're seeing the development of cartels and monopolies in transportation, in communication, the conglomeration of energy companies, on and on. A lot of this is the direct result of deregulation.
"Once upon a time, we recognized the big would swallow up the small and that it paid to mitigate the consequences. Republicans have wholly embraced deregulation. For small town businesses, though, I think we can level the playing field."
Beyond fighting for organized labor and farmers-despite the Montana Farmers Union's $250 donation to Hill's campaign, union president Ken Maki has nice things to say about both men-Deschamps says he'd concentrate on getting federal lucre to students and small businesses. Again and again, he blasts his Republican opponent as an unproductive member of an unproductive majority.
Hill dismisses any notion of Deschamps making inroads on the agricultural front, and claims he's done his part for Montana farmers. "We've got a serious problem right now, and a good share of the problem can be laid at the feet of the administration," the congressman says.
"In fact, I've been endorsed by nearly every agriculture group that takes a position on the race. I don't even know when the last time the Montana Farmers Union supported a Republican for Congress was. We've worked hard on trade and on bolstering agriculture income in areas hit by market deficiencies.
"To be honest with you, I think I've accomplished more than any other freshman in the House."
Even as such exchanges fly-with rhetoric on both sides heating up over education funding, gun control, grizzlies and other old reliables-the '98 race for Montana's House seat looks downright courtly compared to the nasty bloodfeast of '96.
Headed into Election Day '96, Hill's tilt with Democrat Yellowtail had degenerated into a feud focusing on the candidates' personal foibles-particularly, Bill Yellowtail's foibles. Even as Hill protested innocence, a controversial conservative outfit called Triad Management Services launched a series of ads blasting Yellowtail for indiscretions committed many years earlier, including a burglary committed as a college student and the fact that he once struck his first wife.
Hill maintains he had nothing to do with the Triad ads, which were paid for through a non-profit shell organization called Citizens for Reform. Based in Virginia, a state known for lax political funding laws, Triad inserted itself into congressional races across the country in 1996. Senate Democrats subpoenaed the company as part of an investigation of possible campaign finance violations; Triad courted a contempt of Congress charge by ignoring the summons, which the Republican majority neglected to enforce.
Hill's campaign still disavows any contact or connection with Triad, a claim disputed by a complaint to the Federal Elections Commission filed by the Montana Democratic Party. They point to the fact that Hill shows up on a list of 60 favored Republicans in a Triad memo obtained by the Associated Press as proof of his wrongdoing. The complaint is still pending.
As of early this week, Erick Tombre, Deschamps' press secretary, says Triad has yet to make a move on Hill's part this time around. "It was the last 10 days of the campaign when they went after Yellowtail," he says. "Some of their stuff could fly under radar-phone calls, push-polling, mailings. We haven't heard a thing yet."
Meanwhile, Hill and his people say the Democrats' efforts to foment uproar over Triad amount to little more than desperation. Indeed, with Triad yet to weigh in, the race could turn on who bothers to vote, rather than on the meddling of out-of-state partisans.
Nationwide, turnout is expected to be low. Republicans usually reap the benefits of ballot-box anemia.
Montana voters, though, historically have shown up electorates around the country, and some studies now show the two parties in a dead heat in the battle for likely voters' affections. Unions favoring Deschamps say they plan big pushes on Election Day, and the farmers the Democrat has targeted are reliable voters.
The on-going quarrels over impeachment proceedings against Clinton are expected to poison voters' will to participate. Even so, some Democratic congressional hopefuls, notably Washington state's Jay Inslee, have decided to use the GOP's zeal for investigating the president against the majority party.
While Deschamps has yet to try that ploy, he does say Hill's vote for a wide-open impeachment inquiry could haunt the incumbent. "I think that the American people are going to demand that this impeachment thing end," he says. "It will badly backfire on them if they try to drag it out."
Still, to see Hill in motion is to witness a politician firm in the belief he'll win. Working the crowd at the Joker's Wild, Montana's congressman fields questions ranging from private property rights to wetlands to family values. "Ask yourself," he implores his faithful. "Who can you trust? The Democrats who never put money aside to save Social Security? Or the Republicans who did?"
In the buzz of Deschamps' war room, foot soldiers and the candidate himself prod for Hill's Achilles' heel. It could be Montana's wages, Hill's low standing with conservationists and sportsmen, the agricultural implosion, Newt Gingrich's impeachment crusade or some combination as yet undiscovered.
"Montanans are very close to anger with the extremism of today's Republican Party, and that goes for both the national level and in Montana," says Williams, the last Democrat to speak for Montana in the House. "I would say Hill is extraordinarily and surprisingly weak for a first-term incumbent."
As this paper goes to press, Deschamps has five days to find the weakness that will allow him to take the Hill. Otherwise, if the outcome predicted by pollsters comes to pass, he'll have little to show for his stuggles but paper cuts and phone jaw. That, and two years' dubious credit as architect of another Democratic defeat under the Big Sky.
Meanwhile, Rick Hill could be back in Washington, making law until the year 2000.
Photo by Loren Moulton