Elections 2012: Have You Heard the One About Montana’s Talking Cows?

Mark Trahant
9/13/12

Montana is not exactly a blue state. So it was no surprise when conservative-bent campaign funds pumped millions of dollars into the state with the goal of defeating the Democrat, an incumbent U.S. Senator. TV ads depicted him as “too liberal for Montana.”

The year was 1982. It was a winning year for Republicans picking up seats and continuing control of the U.S. Senate.

But back in Montana, John Melcher was re-elected. How? Talking cows.

A series of TV spots warned of outside money. “And Montana isn’t buying it,” said one spot, “especially those that know bull when they hear it.” That’s when the talking cows took over saying the city slickers were badmouthing “Doc Melcher” (a veterinarian). “One of them was stepping in what they were trying to sell,” said another.

Melcher won that race because he was able to connect with Montana’s image of itself, a state of farmers, ranchers and really The West.

Six years ago Melcher told the Billings Gazette that Jon Tester was that kind of Montanan. “From the ground up,” he said. “Tester is the real stuff.”

The talking cows might not be around in 2012 but the debate over the real Montanan continues. The Missoulian newspaper says this race might come down to “who is more Montana.”

Tester, who’s running for re-election, is from Big Sandy. He says on his website that he is a “third-generation Montana dirt farmer who brings his Montana values with him to the U.S. Senate.”

His opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg, also calls himself a “fifth generation Montana rancher.” His website says, “having spent a majority of his life working on the family ranch, Denny has firsthand experience with many of the problems facing agriculture producers and small business owners in Montana.”

Rep. Denny Rehberg

But that’s where the real Montana debate kicks in. Tester said Rehberg hasn’t ranched in years and calls him a “subdividing” rancher. Them are fighting words.

Even more. Tester’s web page uses the word “lobbyist” in front of Rehberg’s name as a title.

And Tester points to the U.S. Senate’s passage of a new farm bill, a measure stalled in the House of Representatives. “Farmers and ranchers across the nation are battling record drought and reeling from historic wildfires, and agriculture – Montana’s top industry – needs certainty and predictability,” he said in a statement. “The Senate’s Farm Bill is a bipartisan, fiscally responsible plan that saves taxpayers billions. It’s long past time for the House to stop making excuses, step up and be leaders, and stand with Montana’s farmers and ranchers.”

Some 40 Montana farmers were in Washington, D.C., today to lobby for action by the House. One told the Public News Service that Rehberg’s office told him the farm bill wasn’t even on the House leadership’s calendar.

In a news release, Rehberg blames House inaction on the climate against rural issues coming from the Obama administration. But he also says (near the end of his release) that House leaders ought to move a bill forward. "But as our ag industry struggles with everything from droughts to floods and wildfires, there is simply no excuse for further delay in passing a Farm Bill," he says. "House leaders have a responsibility to bring the Farm Bill to the floor to move the process forward in a timely manner. I told them as much in a letter I sent them along with a handful of rural colleagues."

Rehberg is also a member of the House Native American Caucus. “Native Americans still face significant challenges,” he said. “I’ll roll up my sleeves and work to provide better economic and social opportunities in Indian country.”

However Tester has made American Indian issues a centerpiece of his campaign. He calls it “Standing up for Indian Country.” He cites his support for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, being instrumental in support for Cobell v. Salazar settlement, and the Tribal Law and Order Act.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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