Amanda Curtis says she slept well the night before the Montana Democratic Party's Aug. 16 special nominating convention in Helena. The state representative from Butte was the perceived frontrunner in the push to replace Sen. John Walsh, who dropped off the November ballot following a plagiarism scandal in late June. Curtis spent the days leading up to the convention drumming up support from voting delegates, but as she entered the party's proceedings she felt a strange sense of calm.
"I'm not the one that has been asking for this," she says. "There have been people who said, 'We want this and we're working for this.' That just gave me an incredible peace of mind, knowing that it's not Amanda Curtis. It's a movement."
The list of potential nominees had already dwindled significantly before Saturday's vote. Gone were the heavy-hitters like former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Intriguing prospects including state Superintendent Denise Juneau, former NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan and longtime state Sen. David Wanzenried had all withdrawn themselves from consideration. Efforts to draft actor Jeff Bridges made for several days of entertaining speculation, but ultimately proved ineffective.
A few remaining possibilities appeared in the wings at the Saturday morning convention. Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger hung back in the public section, occasionally leaning over the partition to shake hands and chat with the party's voting delegates. Both had lost to Walsh in the Democratic primary, and both had voiced a desire to step into the candidacy in the wake of Walsh's exit from the race. On the other side of that partition, Curtis roamed about the delegate tables. Her bid for the nomination had won the backing just days before of both MEA-MFT and the AFL-CIOMontana's two largest unions; several Curtis supporters, signs and all, had even set up shop in the convention parking lot.
The event itself was historic enough. The U.S. Senate Historical Office reportedly only found one other example of a Senate candidate resigning after a primary but before a general election. But MDP Chairman Jim Larson placed added weight on the day's outcome, repeatedly referencing the need to select the strongest candidate to defeat the Republican competition in November. "We're ready to take on Steve Daines and his special agenda," Larson said after gaveling the convention to order.
Democrats made short work of selecting their top choices, and the morning came down to two contenders—Adams and Curtis. In seconding Adams' nomination, Louise Bruce cited his recent work on the primary campaign trail. "We will win this race with Dirk Adams," she said. "This race is about substance, not image." In nominating Curtis, state Sen. Robyn Driscoll said the Butte High School math teacher "understands everyday Montanans because she is one of us. She knows strong public education can be the path out of poverty because that's her life story. "
For nearly half an hour, party delegates lined up at the microphone to make a case for Adams or for Curtis. Several praised Adams' experience as a former bank CEOa credential that garnered some criticism early in his initial campaign—and came to his defense regarding earlier statements that he supported the Citizens United ruling. Others underscored the need for younger leaders like Curtis, the 34-year-old who posted daily YouTube videos from the 2013 Montana Legislature. Curtis was described as "bold," "inspiring, "fearless" and "a quick study."
"If you nominate Amanda Curtis today, you're going to have a fighter in there," said Kelly McCarthy, chair of the Yellowstone County Democrats. "If you nominate Amanda Curtis today, I've got a sympathy card for Steve Daines that we all can sign. I feel sorry for him."
The stark contrast between Curtis and Daines became the central talking point for numerous delegates, and Curtis took the comparison even further. She focused much of her nominee speech on the key issues her campaign would focus on—affordable public education, protection of public lands, equality for Montana's LGBT community—but leveled a number of pointed attacks at the party's opposition.
"This election could decide who controls the U.S. Senate," she said. "I don't mean the Republicans versus the Democrats; I mean the millionaires versus the middle class. This is the fundamental difference between Steve Daines and me. He seems like a nice guy with a wonderful family, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't understand what life is like for the rest of us."
Adams' own nominee speech included promises to campaign on high-speed fiber optic cable in Montana, childcare for kids under 4 and cleanup efforts at the Berkeley Pit. While he did make the occasional jab at Daines"Here in Montana," he jested, "we're just so fortunate to have a Republican candidate who takes Genesis literally and the Gospels as merely advisory"Adams took equal aim at Walsh, his one-time primary opponent with no more presence in the race.
Curtis' 82-46 vote victory over Adams came as little shock to those at the convention. As the delegates adjourned, Adams made his way to the back of the building, vowing to support Curtis however he could and confirming this wouldn't be the last time he runs for office. "Where depends on where I'm needed," he said.
As for Curtis, she wasted little time in hitting the campaign trail. Hours after the convention, she was in Caras Park to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Forward Montana—the nonprofit that knocked doors for her 2012 legislative campaign. Her Senate bid is still considered a long-shot, but she walked out of Saturday's convention with optimism.
"It was my honor to represent my neighbors in Butte," she told the Indy, "and the idea of getting to represent my friends and coworkers and neighbors from all across the state—east, west, agriculture, mining—is an incredible, incredible opportunity."