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Kelly McCarthy’s Radical Pragmatism

State legislator Kelly McCarthy is seeking his party’s nomination to run in Montana’s upcoming special congressional election. He’s comfortable with his label as a moderate Democrat — but in a state that voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, will that label cost him a promotion?
Scenes from Billings, Montana.

Scenes from Billings, Montana.

In Montana, the outside temperature has been oscillating between 25 to 40 degrees recently, melting and re-freezing the snow blanketing state highways. That shift in degrees leads to a lot of black ice on the ground, and for Montana State Representative Kelly McCarthy, that means heading back to his hotel before the sky grows as dark as the road.

It’s a cold Sunday evening in late February and McCarthy has been navigating those roads for weeks as he criss-crosses the state to meet with scores of Democratic officials. McCarthy is in the early stages of an attempt to win Montana’s sole congressional seat that has been recently vacated by Donald Trump’s newly minted Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. So drive, he must, black ice be damned.

But McCarthy doesn’t seem to mind much. He talks about the winter, and his home state, fondly. He’s from Billings, the only city in Montana with a population over 100,000.

“It sounds folksy,” McCarthy says, “but there’s things that run through all of us [in Montana], and you don’t see it until you’ve lived it.” He describes the land itself as an inescapable presence in their lives: the “magic” of rolling mountains unfurling at your feet, hundreds of miles of vast openness. He credits this distance between neighbors as the reason people feel so inclined to lend a hand: “[There’s a sense] you owe the person next to you, and you reach out to them.”

Take the snowstorms. Everybody drives around with a tow strap, he says, because you’re likely to pass someone who needs help pulling his or her car out of a ditch. The same philosophy underwrites his campaign — there’s a grain of what he calls “bleeding heart libertarianism” alongside a heavy-handed dose of realism. In Montana, where 90 percent of the state’s 1.04 million residents are white and there’s a population density of seven people per square mile, delicate political maneuvering, he says, is necessary.

“You can’t wear a gay pride T-shirt, pull up in your Prius [to a voter’s house] and say, ‘Hey, can I get your support?’” McCarthy says.

McCarthy believes that, for Democrats to win state seats, they’ll have to take a more measured approach. He believes moderation is one of the distinguishing characteristics between himself and the woman he considers his most formidable opponent, state House Representative Amanda Curtis, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2014. (Curtis declined to be interviewed for this story.)


McCarthy’s current job as a state representative isn’t exactly a glamorous one. Montana’s state House pays representatives $10.33 per hour for what is essentially a part-time gig, giving McCarthy ample opportunity to sample others. After spending 23 years in the Air Force working largely for the intelligence community and five years afterward in banking, he founded his own economic consulting firm, which he still runs while serving in the legislature (he joined the Montana House in 2012).

When it comes to McCarthy and Curtis’ platforms, there is little material difference in their respective policies. Both are outspoken critics of the Indian Health Services’ mismanagement, and have promised to help protect vital agriculture jobs. Yet McCarthy believes he looks through “more of a libertarian lens” than Curtis does, constantly asking whether the government “needs to get involved” in whatever issue is being discussed. The other six candidates running include a high school science teacher, a former Obama administration staffer, and a musician. While they may all be “nice guys,” McCarthy says, “that doesn’t mean they know policy.”

McCarthy fancies himself a policy wonk, and there are two areas in particular that matter to him most: veterans and public lands. In a state with roughly 300,000 veterans and 30 million acres of public land, McCarthy is big on safeguarding both.

Though Veterans Affairs head David Shulkin announced this week that officials can expect to see a department budget increase under Trump, Montana’s leaders have made clear they want more than just money thrown at the Choice Program, a health-care service that connects veterans with medical providers in their communities. “It sounds self serving, but these are friends of mine. It’s not hard to sell veterans’ benefits,” McCarthy says of his focus on improving the VA.

The issue of public land preservation has landed Montana in the national spotlight. Last month, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz was forced to withdraw the fifth iteration of a bill that would allow states to effectively buy back federal land after just a week on the floor of the House. While McCarthy noted that Montanans “guard our land very religiously,” Zinke himself voted this year in favor of a bill that would make it easier to transfer federal lands to states, which advocates worry could effectively allow oil companies to start drilling for black gold in the Grand Canyon.

“This may sound, like, Mr. Snuff goes to Washington, but I struggle to believe I can’t [work with Republicans on those issues] if I get there,” McCarthy says.

His endorsements reflect that spirit. In the Billings Gazette, vice-chair of the Custer County Democratic Committee Hannah Nash urged delegates to vote for McCarthy because he “knows when crossing the aisle is good for the citizens of Montana … [and] demonstrates an ability to balance Montana’s dual personalities of urban and rural.” VoteVets, among the largest national veterans’ political action committees, announced Monday it supported McCarthy in the race; member and former state senator Cliff Larsen said McCarthy would serve as a necessary “moderate voice for all Montanans.”

While the Montana Democratic Party has shied away from commenting on individual candidates or offering endorsements, Nancy Keenan, its executive director, puts the race in equally blunt terms: “We live in a state where we have to be more pragmatic in articulating our values.”

And just a handful of months after what many consider an apocalyptic upending of America’s civic underpinnings, Democrats in Georgia are using Montana’s special election, alongside a contentious fight in Georgia to replace Tom Price, as a bellwether for how much voters and politicians are willing to change.

“This race will be a big tell for [the mindset of] swing voters, for voter turnout, whether the women’s marchers can be turned into votes that favor Democrats. Even if [the race] is close, that sends a huge message,” Franke Wilmer, who served with McCarthy in the state House, says of the election.

“You can’t wear a gay pride T-shirt, pull up in your Prius, and say, ‘Hey, can I get your support?’”

For the state’s Republicans, who will hold their nominating convention March 6th, the likely candidate is New Jersey billionaire Greg Gianforte, who unsuccessfully ran against Steve Bullock in the gubernatorial race. His front-runner status is obvious — just read one of the stream of emails issued by Montana’s central Democratic committee that focuses on the threat Gianforte poses to Montana residents.

“Gianforte desperately tries to sell himself to uninterested Republicans,” one email declares. Another announcing a new series that will highlight why Gianforte “does not represent Montana values” promises that “each day this week, the Montana Democratic Party will show why Montanans rejected Gianforte in 2016 and will reject him again as a candidate for the U.S. House.”

While Keenan is confident in the Democrats’ chances, they face a few significant logistical challenges. Montana state law gives candidates running in special elections only 85 to 100 days to campaign, and Democratic Governor Bullock set the race at its minimum possible length, giving Democrats less time to fund-raise. The Republicans will, in all likelihood, be better funded than the Democrats; Keenan notes that Gianforte’s personal wealth allows him to start bankrolling an advertising campaign without waiting for a donor’s financial support. Worse still, Republican lawmakers were criticized for attempting voter suppression after pushing back on a bill that would allow voters to mail in their ballots for the special election, a voting mechanism that has historically led to increased voter turnout among Democrats.

“The thing that makes you want to throw up in your mouth a little bit is that we have to get one-sixth of the people who voted for Donald Trump to pull the lever for Kelly McCarthy [in the special election],” McCarthy says. “November was horrible for Democrats. We have to turn on the news every night and see that same orange face. I need to tell voters it’s going to be OK.”

He’ll get a chance to do that sometime after 10 a.m. on Sunday, when the candidates and some 150-plus delegates will convene at a Best Western in Helena to select the party’s nominee. While the day will run long, given the number of candidates scheduled to speak, it should be amicable. McCarthy notes that he and Curtis are friends, and often get beers together after work.

Still, party leaders and onlookers are hopeful as they bear witness to promising signs of political revitalization. Once-defunct Democratic central committees have re-opened in seven counties in recent weeks, something state Democratic committee director Keenan says is “absolutely” a product of Trump’s win. “And they’re rural — that tells us something,” she adds. Over 10,000 people flooded Helena for the Women’s March, a staggering number considering the state’s population size and political lean.

“Alls I can say is, there’s new enthusiasm [for grassroots organizing] here,” Keenan says.

McCarthy, for his part, has hired a team that’s trying to prepare him not just for the Democratic nominating convention, but also for the special election. He hired Silicon Valley shark Steve Spinner, who worked as a fundraiser for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. McCarthy is anticipating a windfall of cash from VoteVets, the veterans’ PAC which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Democrat Jon Tester’s (successful) 2012 Senate re-election campaign.

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To really understand Montana politics, McCarthy tells me, you have to understand the social nuances of the state: the mascots of each county’s high school, how to pronounce city names (don’t get him started on Glasgow or Pondera County). He means that Democrats have to acknowledge their rural constituents in a non-patronizing way.

Nearly every person I speak to dismisses the notion that the crisis of confidence the Democratic National Committee faces with its left-wing members rings true for Montana, or even other states with a substantial number of Republican voters.They think dissecting the discrepancies between so-called “progressive” and “moderate” Democrats is splitting hairs. (Wilmer notes with a laugh that, when she ran for office, “people wanted to paint me as the progressive and the other as the corporate shill. But there are, like, two corporations in Montana.”)

Instead, they affirm what David Parker, the political scientist and professor at Montana State University, believes is the most troubling demographic cleavage among Democrats: “It’s rural versus urban.”

Representing rural voters, Parker says, means understanding that the economies of those areas are based on agriculture, and often extraction; that providing comprehensive health care to rural areas is far more challenging than providing it to urban ones; that rural citizens often drive longer distances than urban counterparts and are therefore “disproportionately affected” by gas taxes. It also means understanding that guns “are used to feed your family and protect yourself.” Wilmer adds that rural constituents are likely just now feeling the effects of immigration and globalization, and are angrily watching their communities change.

Because Sanders won the state’s Democratic primary in 2016, it’s easy to assume that liberals everywhere are itching for an ideological departure from the Democrats’ traditional center-left order, or a political shake-up on par with the momentum that launched Trump to the White House. Not so, says Montana State University’s Nicol C. Rae, dean of the school’s College of Letters and Science.

The Montana State Capitol in Helena

The Montana State Capitol in Helena

Rae speculates that the “‘populist’ tradition and style of politics in the region” has more to do with Sanders’ performance in “Western or reddish states” than voters’ ideological lean. Increasingly, Democrats in states like Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are located in college towns. There may be more self-identifying Democrats than ever, but they’re flocking to all the same places.

Electoral maps re-drawn after November 8th provided haunting depictions of that divide. Maps of the U.S. that in 2012 showed Obama’s gains eating through the Sun Belt and Great Lakes were now bathed in swaths of crimson across the West, the South, the Midwest, brutal reminders of how many seats Democrats had ceded. Only sporadically, nestled along the coast like sapphires floating in a sea of blood, were the small blue Democratic holdouts in large metropolitan areas like Chicago, Miami, Nashville, and Dallas.

“We have to accept that there are baby steps…. We’re sliding backwards.”

It’s for this reason that Parker says that Republicans have the “inside track” in the special election, especially after winning three state-level seats back from Democrats in November — and that Democrats have the best chance of shoring up votes only with a candidate who “speaks rural.”

The vicious feedback loop of political polarization has not been kind to Democrats looking to stray from the party line. Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senators from West Virginia and North Dakota, respectively, got flak from leftists when they voted to confirm Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rex Tillerson to run the Department of State.

But Manchin and Heitkamp — along with Jon Tester (D-Montana), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), and Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana) — represent states whose margins of victory for Trump run into the double digits, and which present a tricky and amorphous battleground for their re-election campaigns next year. For DNC officials, who have watched as Republicans won 1,000 legislative offices across the country since Obama took office, holding onto those seats is crucial.

One Democratic operative based in D.C. notes that there is “definitely is a divide [in the party] where the old guard wants to keep running candidates in moderate districts who are more moderate.”

McCarthy thinks Democrats on the far left should temper their expectations, noting that the U.S. “is not going to be a Scandinavian democracy overnight.” (If that line sounds familiar, that’s because it is: In the first 2015 primary debate against Sanders, Clinton declared “we are not Denmark.”)

“If I thought we could get someone like Amanda [Curtis] elected to this office, I wouldn’t be doing this,” McCarthy says. “But we have to accept that there are baby steps…. We’re sliding backwards. [The priority now is] to stop the backslide.” On Keith Ellison’s loss as DNC Chairman, McCarthy says he “would have loved” to have him lead the party, but that the DNC is “not ready for a black Muslim [to lead it].”

The question for Democrats, moving into the 2018 mid-term elections, is how to effectively and compassionately glue together those disparate pieces. McCarthy isn’t looking to save the party. But protecting the state in the age of Trump, he says, merely requires someone willing to patiently chip away at the policies, like federal land transfers, that challenge the birthright and legacy of Montanans — after all, he adds, “you can’t do a lot of work on the farm when there’s three feet of snow.”