Oregon Democrats have a crush on Montana, and for good reason. Big Sky Country, where George W. Bush creamed Democratic opponents in both 2000 and 2004, has something unusual that many Oregonians envy: two Democratic senators in the U.S. Capitol.
Now some of those same green-with-envy people are hoping some of that Big Sky donkey love will spread even farther west—to the Beaver State.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who ousted three-term Republican incumbent Conrad Burns by just 3,500 votes last year, visited Portland this month to raise money for Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley, who’s running in the Democratic Senate primary next May.
Merkley’s opponents include activist Steve Novick, who entered the race four months before Merkley did in August, and Candy Neville, a lesser-known candidate from Eugene who entered the race just last week.
With almost one year to go before the chosen Democratic candidate faces off against Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, the similarities between Oregon’s Senate race and Montana’s in 2006 are striking. Like Burns last year in Montana, Oregon’s Republican incumbent faces decreasing job approval ratings, according to recent polls. And the other sitting senator in both states is a long-serving Democrat: Max Baucus in Montana and Ron Wyden in Oregon.
Oregon Dems seem intent on looking to Montana and Tester in particular for inspiration—and proof that a Democrat can upset Smith, a proven vote-getter who soundly beat his Democratic opponent in 2002 with 56 percent.
“He’s the new breed of Western Democrat,” Merkley spokesman Russ Kelley says of Tester.
On Dec. 15, Tester (who’s best known outside of Montana for his background as a farmer and his flat-top haircut) appeared at Portland’s MacTarnahan’s Taproom stumping for Merkley. For $500, donors could have their photograph taken with the pair.
Tester isn’t the only hot Montana Democrat in Oregon. The Oregon Democratic Party hosted Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer at its biennial fundraiser in October. Schweitzer’s bolo tie pulled in $2,100 at an auction to support the Dems.
This article was originally published in Willamette Week