The winds of change - they are a-blowin' hard out here in the heartland, no matter how much Washington, D.C. pretends they aren't. As the Billings Gazette reported here in Montana just minutes ago, populist Democrat Jon Tester crushed his primary opponents in a major upset, becoming the Democratic nominee against vulnerable incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT). Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, ran against the Washington Establishment, ignoring those who said he couldn't beat the State Auditor John Morrison - the candidate that Democratic Party powerbrokers in Washington tried to anoint.
In fairness, I think both Tester and Morrison are good Democrats. But, as I saw when I was at Tester's announcement speech last year, and I learned in talking with Tester during the campaign, this is a guy who clearly and unabashedly represents the populist wing of his party (I publicly stayed out of the primary out of deference to the state party that didn't want to further enflame the already divisive primary battle). His victory will likely send yet more shockwaves through Washington's increasingly insulated Democratic Establishment in Washington.
That Establishment has either refused to take basic, concrete positions on the key issues of the day like Iraq, or worse, has high-profile factions publicly insulting middle-class voters, such as when former Clintonites on Wall Street insulted those Democrats who are trying to reform America's sellout trade policy.
But as I have written before, Tester - and other successful Democrats running this year - are doing exactly the opposite. Back in November, I noted how Tester rejected Washington's advice, and took a strong position on the Iraq War. A few weeks back, I also noted how on critical economic issues like trade. These are positions that put him squarely at odds with the national Democratic Party and the Big Money interests that control Washington, but that put him in sync with voters in Montana and throughout the heartland. Put another way, he made the fight against Big Money's hostile takeover of our government a central theme in his legislative career and in his primary campaign - and he was, to the great shock of Washington insiders, handsomely rewarded by voters.
There are a lot of lessons to learn from this primary. First and foremost, when Democrats take strong positions and courageously stand up to the powers that be, they are rewarded. In the era of money-drenched, consultant-dominated politics, voters are desperate for authenticity - and the best way to show you are authentic is to reject the prepackaged talking points from corporate-funded Washington front-groups like the Democratic Leadership Council and actually stand with ordinary people out here in the heartland.
Secondly, the era of television advertising totally and completely dominating politics is over, at least in primaries in smaller states. In such races, candidates can meet almost everyone who is going to cast a vote. That means retail politics, field, free media, online organizing and word of mouth become priceless. Early on in this primary, I praised Tester in the American Prospect for seriously embracing the netroots and painting a contrast between himself, the outsider, and his opponent, more of an insider. Over the course of the next many months, he took that to the next level.
This means that in the future, as the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party (and by extension against the hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests) rages on between populists and elitists, small-state primaries are going to be the high-profile battlegrounds where our side - the small "d" democrats in the Democratic Party - are going to crash the gates.
Finally, to those who derided Brian Schweitzer's way of running campaigns in 2004 and labeled him a fluke, Tester's victory puts that to rest. Schweitzer, as we see, was the sharp tip of the spear, ripping through the thin veneer that Democratic Party insiders have clung to through election loss after election loss after election loss. Schweitzer - and now Tester - are showing those in their state and throughout the nation that the way to really be a political leader is to reject the D.C. insiders who preach caution; ignore the naysayers who seek to turn politics into bland ad campaigns for soap; and embrace an in-your-face politics that tells people you are dead serious about cleaning up our government.
Tonight is a terrible night for Conrad Burns, not only because one of his primary challengers got almost a quarter of GOP votes, but because Democrats now have Jon Tester carrying the flag against him. Burns barely eeked out a victory last time against Schweitzer - then an unknown first-time candidate. Now, severely damaged by his connections to high-profile corruption scandals, Burns is facing a Schweitzer-style populist - but one who is better-known than Schweitzer was during his dark horse Senate bid in 2000. It's Tester Time - and that means Burns' days in the Senate are numbered.
David Sirota is a writer and veteran political strategist. He just completed a book for Random House's Crown Publishers entitled "Hostile Takeover." Sirota is currently the co-chairperson of the Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN). - a position he took after finishing a two-year stint at the Center for American Progress. Sirota is currently a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, and a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.