Dennis McDonald rode up to the steps of the Missoula County Courthouse Monday morning on a horse named Rowboat. A mule, Justice, followed close behind with a sign draped over his back: "McDonald for Congress." After seven months of stumping for Montana's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, McDonald was finally in his element.
"I'm always more comfortable when I'm in the saddle," the Democratic candidate said. "This is the most enjoyable part of the campaign."
The visit was part of McDonald's two-week "Riding for the Brand" tour, an eleventh-hour campaign push that has him trotting through every major town "from Eureka to Ekalaka." McDonald, founder of the United States Cattlemen's Association and former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party, says he hopes riding Rowboat across the state will demonstrate the work ethic he'll bring to Congress and sway any undecided voters in advance of the Nov. 2 election.
But the only two supporters who showed up Monday to greet McDonald—Missoula Area Central Labor Council President Mark Anderlik and Democratic State Committeewoman Starla Gade—were outnumbered by both the local press and a nearby group of vagrants.
The paltry turnout reflects a general lack of faith in McDonald's long-shot bid to oust five-term Republican incumbent Denny Rehberg. Despite McDonald's best efforts—aside from the horse stunt, he's bluntly berated Rehberg on everything from last year's allegedly drunken speedboat accident on Flathead Lake, in which Rehberg was a passenger, to, more recently, Rehberg's flip-flopped stance on the Cuban embargo—his campaign has failed to generate much momentum.
"I think he's doing the best he can," Anderlik says of McDonald's efforts to gain support. "He clearly could be a capable and competent congressman. If we're hiring someone to be our representative in Washington, I don't think Rehberg deserves anybody's vote."
The turnout a week earlier at McDonald's speech before the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee wasn't much different. Eighteen people showed up to the Missoula City Council chambers to hear McDonald talk about rural poverty and job creation. McDonald knew most of the local folks on a first name basis. His enthusiasm seemed to ignore the lack of fresh, undecided faces at his public functions in Missoula.
"Several months ago I would have told you winning this race was a huge long shot," McDonald told those at the meeting. "I feel that changing...I'm suddenly feeling hope at the end of this thing."
Rehberg hasn't faced a competitive race for re-election since taking office in 2000. In 2008, surprise Democratic primary winner John Driscoll decided not to raise campaign funds and, after promising to vote for Rehberg if Rehberg voted against the federal bailout, kept his promise and voted for his opponent; he lost to Rehberg by 152,540 votes. In 2006, Monica Lindeen attempted to attract attention to her campaign by driving a biofueled bus across the state; she lost by 80,532 votes. McDonald admits he's facing a similar uphill climb.
"Going into these last three weeks, I remain the underdog," McDonald says. "That's just fine with me. In fact, it's a comfortable position to be in as long as that changes by eight o'clock on Nov. 2."
The most recent round of quarterly finance reports, filed with the Federal Election Commission Oct. 16, speak volumes for McDonald's weak position in the race. His fundraising efforts have mostly covered staff payrolls, travel expenses, television advertising and fundraiser food—he spent $217.71 at the Polson Grocery on Aug. 11. By comparison, Rehberg has spent $32,818 on political and media consulting since July, plus thousands more for event expenses at restaurants and clubs across the country including $1,039.34 at the posh Club at Spanish Peaks in Big Sky and $1,106.22 at the Big Sky Pro Shop. Rehberg's raised more than $1.2 million this year, a stark contrast to McDonald's $221,125.72.
That commanding financial lead has allowed Rehberg to all but disregard his would-be usurper. McDonald challenged Rehberg at the beginning of the campaign to meet him on the steps of every courthouse in Montana's 56 counties. To date, Rehberg, McDonald and Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows have debated just three times—twice in June for two state media organizations and once in Great Falls Oct. 15. In the waning weeks of the election, McDonald says he's scheduled four other debates across the state; Rehberg has failed to commit to any.
Rehberg's campaign manager, Evan Wilson, refutes the allegations that Rehberg has ducked debates. The congressman has visited all 56 counties on his own, Wilson says, hosting listening sessions for constituents.
"If Mr. McDonald was interested in having a real discussion about the issues rather than trying to generate press for his floundering campaign," Wilson says, "he wouldn't be riding his pony across Montana in the middle of October, two weeks before the election."
McDonald, of course, sees the last-ditch effort a little differently, preferring to maintain a more optimistic outlook in the ramp-up to Election Day. Despite the increased number of absentee ballots—the Secretary of State's office reports receiving 40 percent of the 140,000 mailed already—McDonald hopes he and Rowboat may influence a few votes.
"And if I win," McDonald says, "I just might keep riding all the way to Washington."