Battle for the Big Sky: Representation and the Politics of Place in the Race for the U.S. Senate


David C.W. Parker

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    To Hilary—

    Without you, the Montana sky would be smaller and this place last, and most certainly not best.

    Tables and Figures



    There are many reasons to write a book on a competitive Senate campaign and congressional representation. Mine boil down to three: to show the real consequences of representational activities undertaken by members of Congress, to demonstrate how campaigns can matter, and because I could. As a political scientist, I study how members of Congress interact with their constituents and—through that research—have come to believe that member interactions with constituents have clear electoral consequences. Trips home, electronic newsletters sent, press releases issued, and casework undertaken on behalf of constituents attempting to navigate a complicated federal bureaucracy are essential to building a lasting and trusting relationship with the folks back home. The 2012 Montana Senate race provided an interesting test of the proposition that these interactions matter because the two candidates were incumbents representing the same geographic space. Both had served Montanans in Congress during the same period, and both had access to similar tools with which to build trust with their constituents. How did Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg and Democratic Senator Jon Tester engage with Montanans in their official capacities, and which interactions generated a deeper and more effective connection? Finally, would the disparity in official resources between a House member representing a state alone and a United States senator affect how Montanans perceived the two candidates? This book shows how the home styles first documented by political scientist Richard Fenno nearly four decades ago still matter in a very different political era dominated by polarized political parties and social media.

    If representational activities matter and generate impressions among constituents, the campaigns undertaken by members of Congress bolster and solidify those impressions in the minds of voters. Candidates raise millions of dollars in Senate races because they believe that efforts to communicate with voters about their records and those of their opponents have consequences for election outcomes. Political science, however, has not been so sure that campaigns affect election outcomes. In fact, much of the existing scholarship suggests that campaigns do not matter much at all. What matters most are the fundamentals underlying each congressional race, including whether there is an incumbent (who usually wins), the state of the economy, the popularity of the president, whether the incumbent shares the president's party, the partisan leanings of individual voters, and the existence of a presidential campaign. I argue that while campaigns very often don't matter because many House and Senate races are simply not competitive in the first place, in competitive elections they absolutely can make the difference between winning and losing. In this book, I show how.

    Ever since I read Fenno's pioneering work as an undergraduate, I hoped I would have the opportunity in my career to soak and poke my way through a campaign as he did. Doing research like Fenno's carries risks: It is time intensive and requires extensive travel and considerable effort sorting through voluminous materials. In a discipline increasingly measuring research productivity by methodologically heavy peer-reviewed articles, it seemed too much of a gamble for junior faculty. A prominent scholar reviewing the impact of Fenno's collective work notes, “Everyone cites Fenno, but very few people do that kind of work. There was remarkably little follow through.”1 Compounding the problem of replicating his method is the changing nature of a political landscape that is less trusting and more polarized.

    Serendipity played no small role in the emergence of this project. I moved to Montana two years after Senator Jon Tester had beaten a scandal-tarnished incumbent in the closest Senate race of 2006. Political forecasters anticipated that Tester's 2012 reelection would be competitive and close. As a newly minted Montanan, I discovered how small and intimate the state really is. Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg's eldest daughter, Katie, was a student in some of my classes at Montana State. I met the congressman in 2008, and he spoke to my classes on occasion. I got to know him a bit and enjoyed learning from him.

    In late January of 2011, I heard the rumors about Rehberg challenging Tester.

    Participant observation still had a chance in this small state where access was the norm. Better yet, I would try to do something Fenno had not: watch the campaign from both sides as it unfolded. My career was well-positioned so that tenure was not at risk. Right place, right time, right race, right person, and right … method. The stars had aligned.

    Like Fenno, I spent a lot of time dipping in and out of the lives of Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg on the campaign trail. I enjoyed unprecedented access to both campaigns, and—in addition to my visits with the candidates—interviewed nearly 50 people involved in the campaign and Montana politics. To better understand the political careers of Congressman Rehberg and Senator Tester, I closely examined the bills they sponsored, the earmarks they obtained, and the press releases both issued from their Washington offices between 2007 and 2010.

    To get a solid fix on the impressions Montanans had of both candidates before and during the campaign, I relied both on polls and focus groups. I reviewed public polls released throughout the race (including exit polls), private polls commissioned by Senator Conrad Burns and Congressman Rehberg, and conducted three focus groups of Montana voters in Gallatin County, the state's fastest growing. I also obtained copies of television advertisements aired by the campaigns, outside groups, and the parties, as well as advertising contracts and invoices from Montana's six media markets. This information allowed me to understand how each side framed the choice for Montanans and when and where each side had the informational advantage on television. Finally, I poured over election returns to explain why the fundamentals, which favored a Republican victory, failed to behave as anticipated by election forecasters and political prognosticators. The end result is a project using a variety of information, both qualitative and quantitative, to support my conclusions about representation and campaigning in the 21st century.

    This book is divided into two parts. Part I provides the background necessary to understand Montana politics, the cast of characters, and the representational relationships established by Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg prior to their 2012 campaign. Part II is an account of that campaign and how Jon Tester overcame substantial barriers to win reelection. I provide evidence throughout that the representational actions of candidates and campaign choices affect the outcomes of elections.

    Part I, Chapter 2 focuses on Montana and its land, which is central to the politics of Montana and the West more generally. This chapter contextualizes the paradoxes of modern politics in Montana, drawing upon recent scholarship about the state's political history as well as a series of interviews with thoughtful Montanans who celebrate the state in their words, their deeds, and their industry.

    The final three chapters of Part I discuss the prepolitical and political careers of Tester and his 2012 rival, Rehberg. I weave a theoretical argument throughout that the governing styles of both Tester and Rehberg are central to how they build relationships and constituencies within Montana. It is their home styles that ground their respective campaign narratives in 2012 and are central to the campaign's eventual outcome.

    Part II opens in the winter of 2011—the early days of the campaign. Chapter 6 examines how both candidates primed and framed particular issues for voters at the very beginning of the campaign, showing how these decisions reflected the key electoral constituencies each candidate had built as well as their political experiences. I focus on two issues central to the race: the federal debt and the Affordable Care Act. Finally, I show how early spending by outside organizations on television, courtesy of Citizens United, created both opportunities and frustrations for Rehberg and Tester.

    Chapter 7 looks at voters through the lenses of polls and focus groups. I demonstrate how the reputational styles of both Rehberg and Tester left clear impressions on Montanans and how this shaped the ensuing narratives the campaigns developed. I pay particular attention to how voters viewed Tester and Rehberg personally and the decision by Senator Tester to launch a series of biographical spots beginning mid-March 2012. This decision created an informational advantage for Tester that had important repercussions for how the race unfolded.

    Millions of dollars were spent by the parties, candidates, and outside groups on television advertising during the 2012 race. Chapter 8 looks at the literature on how campaign advertisements affect the decisions of voters—focusing in particular on the importance of developing an informational advantage in television advertising spots. Given that the literature stresses that information advantages are important to affecting voter perceptions, I explore why the Republican informational advantage in the closing days of the race does not yield the anticipated benefits for Rehberg. I again demonstrate how Tester's considerable advantages as an incumbent senator provided an additional bonus in the earned media he received.

    The penultimate chapter opens on Election Night 2012 in Great Falls, where I watched the results trickle in at Jon Tester's campaign headquarters. I pick up with both the candidates and their staff members in the weeks and months following the campaign, explaining how Tester found a path to victory in a Republican-leaning state. In particular, I debunk some theories as to why Tester won that have gained favor in the months following the campaign's close. In addition to interviews with the candidates and staff members, I examine exit polls, precinct returns, and voter turnout data to stress the importance of the campaign message, grassroots mobilization, and voter perceptions of the economy on the final outcome.

    Chapter 10 concludes by taking a 30,000 foot view of congressional elections to apply the lessons of Montana's 2012 Senate campaign to our collective knowledge of electioneering and congressional representation. Specifically, I consider the unexpected consequences of Citizens United, how the development of representational relationships matters more than ever, and how campaigns can affect election outcomes even if many outcomes can be predicted well in advance.

    Hillary Clinton once said it takes a village to raise children. Although this book has my name on the cover, it took a village to help me research and write it. My first debt is to Richard Fenno who provided the intellectual inspiration for the project. He also generously agreed to read a draft of the project. I hope that, even as I fall short of his standard, these pages remain true to his scholarship and those of his many students—most especially Barbara Sinclair and Wendy Schiller, whose work is cited in these pages.

    If one person provided the intellectual spark, a slew of others stoked the flames during the twenty months I followed the Montana Senate race intently. And, I can't thank Senator Jon Tester and Congressman Denny Rehberg enough for generously allowing me to step into their campaign lives and travel with them in cars and planes throughout Montana. And I want to thank their families—especially Sharla Tester and Jan Rehberg. I appreciate you letting me come along for the ride and entrusting me with your stories.

    But as important as the central characters are to this tale, I could never have told it without their respective supporting casts in Montana and in Washington. In particular, I'd like to acknowledge Tom Lopach, Bill Lombardi, Randy Vogel, Andrea Helling, Jed Link, Aaron Murphy, Erik Iverson, Kathy Weber, and Jake Eaton. Without your support and help, this book would be less interesting, less insightful, and still just a dream. I spent so many hours of your time during and after the campaign that I'll spend the next twenty years trying to repay each of you.

    I spent a lot of time travelling to Montana's television stations to get copies of advertising contracts and invoices. This was essential to analyzing all the outside spending in the campaign. Everyone was courteous as I spent hours digitally photographing thousands of pages of records. A few people stand out for going above and beyond the call of duty: Tim Keating at KTVQ in Billings, Leslie Stoll O'Neill at Montana Max Media in Missoula, and Patricia King at KSVI/KHMT in Billings. Tim helped me understand the process of buying television time and mysterious rate schedules. Leslie and Tim also provided me with electronic summaries of television advertising on their stations by group and by month which was very useful in compiling my spending numbers. And Pat, thanks for the “invoice.”

    Several Montanans helped me understand their state and the early careers of Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg. Without them, the first half of the book would have been impossible. Congressman Pat Williams, Secretary of State Bob Brown, Governor Stan Stephens, State Senators Dennis Iverson, Carolyn Squires, Bob Marks, Dan Weinberg, Jon Ellingson, Royal Johnson, John Cobb, Trudi Schmidt, and Mike Halligan graciously met with me to share their love of Montana and their political experiences. Bill Wyckoff, Bob Swartout, Dan Kemmis, Dorothy Eck, Harry Fritz, Jim Murry, Ken Toole, Ray Rasker, Todd Wilkinson, Henry Kriegel, and Archie and Nina Alexander provided their thoughts about Montana, which gave me labor, business, environmental, cultural, and historical perspectives. I spent a memorable afternoon with former Senator Conrad Burns, who gave me two-plus hours of his time after which he gave me a bunch of memorabilia. I'm particularly grateful for him granting access to his polls from the 2006 race. A few others provided me information but needed to do so on background. You know who you are, and I thank you.

    My colleagues at Montana State provided much needed inspiration and research support without which this book could not have been written. Research funds paid for travel and time off from teaching allowed me to follow the campaign unimpeded. Jerry Johnson, department head when I was hired and when this project began, didn't at all think my idea harebrained. He sent me to Mark Young, head of Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) on campus, and my dean at the time, Paula Lutz, to get the financial support and teaching buyout necessary to follow the campaigns in the fall of 2012. I am particularly grateful to Paula for agreeing to grant me leave in the fall of 2012 and a new computer—both of which were instrumental to the project. My colleagues, Liz Shanahan, Sara Rushing, Eric Austin, Franke Wilmer, and Linda Young graciously tolerated my absence from the office throughout much of the summer and fall of 2012.

    Colleagues beyond Montana State helped, too. Sean Kelly and Scott Frisch at California State University Channel Islands, whose extraordinary work doesn't receive the attention it deserves, have helped me find publishers while providing moral support. Justin Grimmer at Stanford and Craig Goodman at the University of Houston-Victoria, both co-authors and friends, never grew tired of my stories and Facebook posts about the race. Sean Theriault and Wendy Schiller cheered me on, always knowing when I needed kind words.

    The project also owes a lot to my students at Montana State. All of them endured my stories from the trail. Simply sharing my experiences and getting their feedback has helped as I've worked to match observation to theory. Students of my Congressional Campaign class in the spring of 2014 assisted by reading a complete draft. Five students, in particular, deserve mention because they engaged in some arduous coding of press releases and newspaper articles—some for the experience, others for their capstone projects. Thanks especially to Steaphan Clement, Hannah Walhert, Samantha Olson, Cassidy Geoghegan, and David Swedman. Your late nights and early mornings with Excel live on in Chapters 5 and beyond.

    Chuck Johnson, longtime bureau chief for Lee Newspapers in Helena, read a complete draft as did Craig Goodman. Chuck's niece, Jane, was one of my top students at Montana State. She went on to work for Senators Baucus and Walsh, reading the first five chapters along with Pavielle Haines, now ABD in political science at Princeton. Mary Murphy and her husband Dale Martin, colleagues in the Department of History, read the history of Montana presented in Chapter 2. I am immensely grateful for their thoughts and observations, which made the book better.

    Steve Turkiewicz, President and CEO of the Montana Bankers Association, also bears mention. He has helped in countless ways as I have worked on this project. He was an early supporter, he helped me meet a variety of folks important to Montana's industry, and offered me a variety of venues with which to share my insights on state and national politics. I truly appreciate our friendship and look forward to our early morning political coffees.

    The focus groups I conducted and which were critical to understanding Montana voters could not have been undertaken if it weren't for the selfless efforts of three Bozemanites: Chris Mehl, Anders Lewendal, and David Yearous. These guys not only recruited friends to spend ninety minutes chatting about the Senate race during the summer of 2012, they generously opened their homes and provided some great food and drink at their expense (despite my repeated efforts to reimburse them). Your willingness to pitch in and help this researcher is emblematic of the community spirit that helps make Montana the “Last, Best Place.”

    To the Montanans I have come to know, love, and respect, thank you for sharing your beautiful state with me. It is a privilege to live among you and to educate your sons and daughters. In these pages, I hope to surprise and delight you. I may, occasionally, annoy. I only ask that you treat what I write as advice from a good and well-intentioned friend, much as K. Ross Toole asked so many years ago. You may not agree with everything in these pages, but I do hope you respect what I have to say. I certainly respect you.

    I've saved the most important person for last: my wife Hilary, to whom I've dedicated the book. Words do not convey what she has done for me during our partnership together. Throughout everything we have shared, the ups and the downs, she has been my biggest fan, my most trusted editor, my muse, and my copilot. I have a lifetime to thank her, but that just won't be enough. She has always believed in me, but more importantly, she helped me to believe in myself.


    1. Richard F. Fenno, Jr, The Challenge of Congressional Representation, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 2.

    About the Author

    David C.W. Parker is an associate professor of political science at Montana State University. He is the author of The Power of Money in Congressional Campaigns, 1880–2006 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), as well as articles on the consequences of divided government and how members of Congress build reputations with their constituents. His article, “Making a Good Impression: Resource Allocations, Home Styles, and Washington Work,” won the 2010 Alan Rosenthal Award from the American Political Science Association. His co-edited volume on archival research methodology, Doing Archival Work in Political Science, was published by Cambria press. As a respected nonpartisan analyst of politics, he frequently provides media commentary for local, state, and national news outlets — including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Associated Press, The Guardian, the Billings Gazette and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. His research on the Montana Senate race was featured in the PBS Frontline documentary “Big Sky, Big Money.” Prior to entering the academy, Dr. Parker worked as a field representative, communications director, and campaign manager for a presidential, mayoral, and two Senate campaigns. He also writes a blog entitled “Big Sky Political Analysis.”

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