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Tester: Democrats 'Don't Have A Message That Rural Folks Can Relate With'

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., works on his farm in Big Sandy, Mont., in 2017.
Office of Sen. Jon Tester
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., works on his farm in Big Sandy, Mont., in 2017.

Democrats once again lost ground in much of the rural West. That includes Montana, where Republicans swept the election for the first time in at least two decades. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., will soon be the lone progressive holding federal office in the state. He's also the only working farmer in the U.S. Senate and author of a new book, Grounded: A Senator's Lessons On Winning Back Rural America. He spoke about lessons learned from November's election with reporter Nate Hegyi of the Mountain West News Bureau.

Nate Hegyi: Why do Democrats keep losing ground in the rural West?

Jon Tester: Because I don't think we have a message that rural folks can relate with. In fact, I'm not sure we have much of a message at all for rural America. 

I know I'm being critical of the folks that are in leadership in Washington, D.C. But the truth is, Democrats at the national level, in particular, need to do as I said in my book, and that is go out to rural America and listen to what they're talking about. They're talking about jobs, and they're talking about consolidation in agriculture, and they're talking about the need for good infrastructure. 

The trade policies of this administration should have flowed a lot of voters into the democratic column. We never took advantage of that, as Democrats, and we never ran on the things that we were going to do as far as creating jobs through good trade policies.

In campaign ads this year, the Democratic Party was labeled as being out-of-touch. The party of socialism, identity politics, and Bernie Sanders. To what degree do you believe that the progressive wing of the party is hurting – or helping – Democrats' chances in mainly white communities in the real West?

So look, I think the Democratic Party is a big tent. And the fact is that there's room for all sorts of different policies that move forward. I'm not going to be critical of any policies that Bernie puts forth, or the Joe Manchin put forth. And those are about the two sides of the party.

The fact is, I think what policies we need to put forth when it comes to rural America are policies that rural Americans can connect with. Now, make no mistake about it, Nate, this election, they expanded on things like socialism and packing the court and all that stuff. 

Fact of matter is, I don't hear much of that talk out of Democrats' mouth at all. The vast majority of them, I never heard about packing the courts, I never heard about socialism. I never heard anybody, nobody that I talked to in D.C. talk about defunding the police. Yet, those were issues that were made to be big issues this election cycle. 

I think in order to counteract that, we've got to have a better message. And it all starts by listening. And I don't think Democrats do a good enough job listening and developing a message that rural folks can hear and go, “Yeah, those guys are the right ones for the job.” 

I think that's where the mistake has been made.

We've also heard criticism recently that Democrats aren't doing enough sustained grassroots organizing in rural, non-Indigenous communities. I mean, how can the party be visible in those places when it doesn't hold state legislative seats, county commissions or even school boards?

Well, look, I think that how you organize people is talking about issues that they view as being very, very important to their communities. 

And then, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it's the fact that there are too many people on the wrong side of the digital divide and we need better broadband in the state. And so there are plenty of issues for people to talk about. 

I think that's the best way to organize. That's the best way to get people excited about a political party. And that's what we need to do more of as Democrats.

In your book, you write that, “rural America is in desperate need of visionaries who can see – and are willing to look – around the corners for our kids and grandkids.” I mean, looking at the Democratic party today, who are those leaders that can reach rural America?

Well, I mean, I would like to think that I'm one of them. But there are other people, I think, that are out there that can do it.

The Tim Kaines of the world. The Michael Bennets of the world. The Martin Heinrichs of the world. The Amy Klobuchars of the world. There's others too. There's plenty of people out there who can reach out and talk to rural America in ways that rural America can relate with.

And what about here in Montana? Democrats got walloped in the election. Is there anyone on the bench that's got a winning chance?

Oh, well, look, only time will tell on that and how they respond from this last election cycle. I have a lot of respect for everybody who's on the ballot. And I could start listing names but you can just go down and the truth is there's a lot of folks in business out there that are folks who consider themselves Democrats that can step in. There's a lot of work and folks out there and working families, men and women, that could step in at any moment in time. 

You know, Brian Schweitzer [the former Democratic governor of Montana], for example, who's still pretty darn well-known in the state of Montana, never held elected office until he was elected governor. 

Even though it was a route that I went through – the state legislature, school board and things like that. The bottom line is that anybody that has a passion for public service can step up and do it. They've just got to be able to relate with the people who are their potential bosses. 

What are your priorities for 2021?

Well, I think there's still plenty to do in the veteran space. I think that we passed a number of bills last Congress that will help our veterans and I think we need to make sure that we're doing the oversight necessary of the [Department of Veterans Affairs] to make sure we're holding the VA accountable to get those bills implemented in proper fashion. 

We're going to have a new administration and I don't know who's going to be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. But truth is, we've got to make sure that person understands our congressional intent when we pass those bills. 

The other thing is that housing is really, really important. There's not enough affordable housing in our state. There's not enough workforce housing in our state and they are one in the same. And we've got to figure out ways to get more housing available if we're going to see our economic opportunities grow in the state of Montana and across this country. 

I would say those are two of the main ones I'm going to be looking at. The other thing is it's going to be pandemic, pandemic, pandemic until we get through this. And so we're going to be dealing with a lot of issues. And a lot of the collateral damage has been done by this pandemic on our economy and figuring out how we address it in the best way without breaking the budget is going to be really important.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News

Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio. He earned an M.A. in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism in 2016 and interned at NPR’s Morning Edition in 2014. In a prior life, he toured around the country in a band, lived in Texas for a spell, and once tried unsuccessfully to fly fish. You can reach Nate at nate@ypradio.org.