The three candidates look too formal for Montana, dressed in suits and neckties for the first debate in the state's most important race this election season. But the setting is classic Montana: A pine-paneled room in a lodge on the edge of the Big Sky ski resort, beside a trout-filled river surrounded by mid-June wildflowers. One of the candidates is a Libertarian Party long shot, so the other two are drawing most of the attention: Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a hulking bear-like Democrat, who's considered vulnerable as he runs for a second term, and Denny Rehberg, the state's sole congressman, an intense, almost wolf-like Republican who's served six House terms and now wants Tester's seat.
The outcome of this race will affect the whole nation. The Republican Party needs only four seats to take control of the Senate, and it sees a good chance of winning here. Tester won by just 3,500 votes in 2006, and polls show him currently in a dead heat with Rehberg. What the two candidates think about national issues should matter. But rather than discuss their policy differences, they start by establishing their ties to Montana's land and culture.
"I am a farmer, a third-generation farmer," Tester begins. "I have the honor and privilege of farming the land that my grandparents homesteaded." That history has left its marks: His left hand, draped over the top of the podium, lacks three fingers, lost in a meatgrinder in the farm's butcher shop when he was 9 years old. His supporters wave signs that say, Montana Farmer -- Montana Values.
Rehberg responds by emphasizing his ranching credentials, with a political spin. "People ask me what got me involved in politics in the first place? Why did I want to serve the people of Montana?" He explains, "In 1974, my great-grandmother passed away and left the ranch to my mom, my dad, my sister and I ... As a result of the estate tax, we had to sell a third of our ranch, our homes, the corrals, the barns, our centralized water system, and we started over. ... No family should have to go through that. It took us (Rehberg and his wife, Jan) 10 years before we could even (re-establish) a house up on the ranch. I would drive from town out every day to the ranch and back -- I didn't even have a shed for a hammer, I started from scratch."
Gesturing vigorously, Rehberg denounces "the hand of the federal government, state government and the local government that sometimes didn't understand that a fee was a tax, and that a tax was a tax, and a regulation was a tax, and all of the costs added up (to a) cumulative effect ... that came down on us, the stifling effect of ... government."
The candidates spend the next hour answering questions, mostly about predictable policy differences. Both sides of the audience seem riled up about one issue in particular: campaign finance restrictions. Tester wants to restore the limits that the Republican U.S. Supreme Court destroyed with its 2010 Citizens United decision. Rehberg prefers no restrictions. During closing statements, though, the debate returns full-circle to where it started. Tester reinforces his farmer credentials: "Look, I'm very proud of my heritage," he says. "I talked about my grandparents coming out and making a farm out of nothing, and my parents taking that ball and going with it, and then in the late '70s Sharla (his wife) and I took it over, and we've run it ever since. Agriculture is the number-one industry in this state and I'm very, very proud to be a part of it." Then Tester goes for the jugular: He charges that Rehberg is really a "mansion rancher" -- subdividing his land and developing high-end homes, behavior that many Montanans view as worse than fishing with a worm. "The congressman has not sold a cow or a goat in years and years and years."
Rehberg defends himself: "When I think about my own heritage, and cracks like, well, I haven't ranched ... See, I have a herding operation, (cattle many years ago, and lately hundreds of cashmere goats). I guess somebody doesn't understand the difference between farming and ranching. Because if you're in ranching, you have livestock and guess what, they eat every day, and we have to know the difference between ... branding and castrating them."
This is identity politics, Montana-style. Popular second-term Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat with a master's degree in soil science, often talks about his ranch. He even takes it to work with him, bringing his herding dog on stage during speeches and using a branding iron on the Capitol steps to smoke legislative bills that he vetoes. Six-term Democratic Sen. Max Baucus has a Stanford law degree but wears a cowboy hat at political appearances and talks up his ties to the Sieben Ranch, which his great-grandfather started in 1897.
Despite my familiarity with Montana politics, I'm surprised by both candidates' apparent obsession with Rehberg's identity. I was already interested in writing about Rehberg. Now I wonder, on a basic level, who he really is. And I wonder if Western "identity" holds the key to the future of the Senate.
Since the debate, I've spent weeks researching Rehberg's family and ranching history and his use of it in politics. As I write, the polls still show a dead heat. I've found that like all politicians, Rehberg bends some facts to get his message across -- even facts about his own history that need no embellishment. It reminds me that reality is a lot more complicated, and more compelling, than either side's political sound bites. That's particularly true when it comes to family history -- any family's history.