Kirk Johnson reported from Montana Friday on the re-election campaign of Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, 'A Race in Montana May Again Be Crucial To Senate Control.' Johnson, hypersensitive to signs of conservative weakness in the Western U.S., worried whether or not the 'moderate' Tester's 'plea for moderation' would receive 'a fair hearing in the election.'
A few election cycles ago, before the recession, the debt crisis and the Tea Party movement redefined American politics, a species called 'the New Western Democrat' emerged in places like Montana.
Identified by their moderate politics, their plumage - typically a cowboy hat and boots - and by the ability to spit with authenticity, these centrists gave hope to Democrats nationally that a traditionally conservative corner of the country might be won over.
Now, Senator Jon Tester, a big-bellied farmer and self-described populist Democrat seeking a second term, is staking his career - and with it, perhaps his party's control of the Senate - on a bet that the West's middle way is still viable. Extremism, Mr. Tester said again and again in a round of campaign stops across the state last week, is a direr threat to Montana than tough times, national debt or recession.
Johnston insisted Tester was a moderate or centrist figure, but his voting record during his four years of Senate service says different, placing him well left of center. The American Conservative Union, which uses voting tallies to rate politicians' faithfulness to conservative principles, rates him 17 out of a possible 100.
But whether Mr. Tester's plea for moderation gets a fair hearing in the election is far from certain, political experts say. Already money is pouring into the state from outside groups, and the arguments are ugly. The first advertisements began appearing as early as March, 20 months before Election Day, some trying to show Mr. Rehberg as hostile to the environment, some painting Mr. Tester as a craven captive to President Obama, who is not particularly popular here.
But other factors, engrained into Montana's political history and geography, could also push the contest more toward the middle and away from the blood-fest of extremes that marked the 2010 midterm elections, when moderates, especially among Republicans, fell under a surge of Tea Party-backed candidates.
Johnson's reporting often links conservatives to the 'extremes.'