This weekend, Montana Democrats nominated state Rep. Amanda Curtis to be their new Senate nominee, after appointed Sen. John Walsh (D) decided not to run following a plagiarism scandal. Even if you're a regular Fix reader, you'd be forgiven for not knowing who Curtis is. Even most Montanans have never heard of her.
First, she's a woman in a state that has elected only one to Congress. Second, she's just 34, which would make her the youngest senator -- by far. She also has just two and a half months to start and finish a winning campaign that already had Democrats as underdogs. Real Clear Politics' poll average had Walsh down by double digits before his decision to drop out. Curtis, unsurprisingly, is a bit more optimistic. “I’m not a sacrificial lamb," she told reporters this week. "I’m going to win, and I’m going to come out swinging for the fences, and I believe this is a winnable campaign.”
Even if Curtis's nomination is unlikely to reduce Republican Rep. Steve Daines's early advantage, her candidacy is interesting for the following reason: Democrats decided not to play it safe. Democrats have made an art out of tip-toeing their way to victory or a slim loss in recent Senate elections by running ideologically moderate candidates in red states. But that's not really who Curtis is.
Curtis last summer attended a Mayors Against Illegal Guns rally, which aimed to pressure then-Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to support expanded background checks. Curtis's brother killed himself playing Russian roulette when he was 16. "If Montana has 2.5 times the suicide rate of states with comprehensive background checks, maybe we should try that out,” she told the Montana Standard at the time. A year later, the Montana Standard wrote an article mentioning that newly christened candidate Curtis had attended the rally. She told them, “I haven’t said anything that average Montanans wouldn’t agree with. I have simply stated that guns shouldn’t be in the hands of the mentally ill and criminals. That’s not too much to ask for, and that’s not a radical position.”
The other two Democrats who sought the Senate nomination were less supportive of expanded background checks. A quick glance around some of the closest Senate races in the country finds many Democratic candidates also treading lightly.
Last year, she taped constant YouTube updates of the state legislative session -- dispatches that were quite candid for a public servant. She explained bills and amendments that had been discussed every day, with text floating over her head offering Cliffnotes like "HB 322: Grizzly attacks cost more." One video got national attention when the Huffington Post wrote about it. Curtis spoke about a colleague who "insinuated that if you are gay you do not have a moral character." After he said that, she told listeners, she wanted to punch him. In another video, she joked, “You know, as an anarchist at heart, I kind of agree with those Republican anarchist ideals. Don’t tell anyone I said that.”
Discussing another castle-doctrine-esque bill, which she called the "Trayvon Martin Constitutional Amendment: Montana Style," she wore a black hoodie -- a reference to what Martin was wearing when he was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. When the Billings Gazette asked her about the videos after the nominating convention, she replied: “I’m not worried about anything being taken out of context in those videos, because they’re the public record. They’re available for anyone to go back and see exactly what I said and in what context I said it."
At the moment, Curtis seems to be on no mission to moderate herself, which lends her campaign the aura of an experiment. If Curtis's young or progressive supporters come out to help her to a narrow loss or an improbable win, perhaps Democrats might rethink their M.O. in red states.
The current strategy has borne plenty of fruit when it comes to winning red states -- and the Senate majority. But the party's more liberal elements sometimes fret that those Democrats aren't the kind of Democrats their party needs in Congress.
The party has also been conducting small experiments elsewhere. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, perhaps the most recognizable populist/progressive/liberal voice in her party, has been fundraising for Senate campaigns in Kentucky and West Virginia.
However, Daines and the Montana Republican Party have already been working to prove that the experiment's findings will not prove helpful for their opponents. The party released a video mash-up of Curtis's legislative updates this weekend.
There's a reason Democrats have trended conservative in states like Montana, and this black-and-white video compilation gets at a lot of those fears. But Amanda Curtis's campaign might all be in service of the long game anyway. In 2000, 33 percent of Montanans voted for Al Gore. In 2008, 47 percent of Montanans voted for Barack Obama. Charisma and the advantage of victors aside, Montanans have been more open to Democrats lately. The state has had two Democratic senators for ages. Issue-wise, the state is primed to listen to Democrats on a few surprising fronts. Montana has fought a few high-profile battles against Citizens United, stoked by the state's history and libertarian streak. In 2008 and 2012, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee flooded Montana with support. The investment paid off.
And young people in the state have been increasingly active when it comes to Montana politics. Forward Montana, a 501(c)4 that runs voter registration drives and events in the state, was mentioned in a New York Times article last year titled, "Young, Liberal and Open to Big Government." Curtis, who was helped by Forward Montana, praises them on their Web site: "You kick so much ass, it’s ridiculous. You’re pretty much my favorite people ever.”
Democrats are crossing their fingers that those young people feel the same about Curtis — and hopefully show up in strong enough numbers to help them in a far-closer House race that's also happening in Montana this fall.