Wall Street Journal: Montana Has Had It With Rich Outsiders. Will That Help Jon Tester Win Re-Election?
October 23, 2023
BILLINGS – Third-generation dirt farmer Jon Tester still lives in Big Sandy, the small Montana town where he grew up. He still grows “wheat, peas, barley and hay on land that his grandparents homesteaded in 1912.” And he still gets his same $12 flattop haircut from the barbershop he’s gone to his entire life.
Although anxiety is growing that Montana is changing – from soaring housing costs, to overburdened local infrastructure, to crowded outdoor spaces following an influx of wealthy out-of-staters – Montanans know that Jon Tester has stayed the same. Read more from Wall Street Journal:
Montanans have voted every other Democrat out of statewide office and decisively backed Donald Trump in the past two presidential races.
Yet residents share a bipartisan frustration that may be Tester’s best hope for clinching another term. They are fed up with monied outsiders streaming into the state and blame them for driving up prices, taking land and eroding Montana’s rugged culture.
Tester, 67, who has narrowly won three elections and votes most of the time with Democrats in Washington, is centering his re-election bid on his identity as a third-generation Montanan. He still farms wheat, peas, barley and hay on land that his grandparents homesteaded in 1912, near Big Sandy, which has less than 600 people.
In dozens of interviews across the state, voters said they are more worried about local issues—land development, agriculture, energy and Native American priorities—than the national political concerns that are expected to shape other competitive Senate contests.
Tester’s appeal as a native Montanan speaks to the wave of pandemic migration that has helped Montana’s growth outpace the rest of the U.S. The state of 1.1 million people picked up a net of 24,000 people from other states in 2021-22, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, giving it a migration growth rate that exceeded that of Florida, a magnet for pandemic relocations.
House prices in Montana have risen more than 42% since before the pandemic, which is above the U.S. average, according to an analysis by Realtor.com.
Bozeman, once a ranch town where residents wore dirty jeans and cowboy boots, is now filled with trendy eateries and national chains, including Lululemon, the purveyor of $100-plus leggings. In Flathead County, some families are selling cabins because they can no longer afford rising property taxes as wealthy outsiders snatch up lakefront property. In Missoula, surging housing costs have forced some people onto the streets.
“Montana needs protecting as more and more people move here,” said Ben Eisinger, 48, a self-identified Republican and the owner of a fly-fishing shop in Kalispell, a city outside Glacier National Park that has grown substantially. Eisinger said he will vote for Tester because the incumbent is focused on protecting public lands.
Interviews with voters here indicate that the candidate who is able to convince voters they can help protect their way of life is most likely to win, a theme echoed in local races.
“There is anxiety that Montana is changing, and it’s changing quickly. Montanans feel the state is becoming a playground for the rich,” said Shelbi Dantic, Tester’s campaign manager. “But Jon Tester is still the same.”