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Despite Long Odds, Curtis Stresses Grassroots Possibilities In Senate Race

curtis-sign.jpg
Andrew Bixler
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On a street near the University of Montana campus in Missoula, a homemade sign faces the road.

“Amanda Curtis for U.S. Senate” the wooden sign reads, its colorful ink stark against a white background. The sign was made by Michael Kirby, 53, in his garage.

“I like what she has to say,” he said. “She’s not establishment."

The sign and message behind it are typical of the campaign Amanda Curtis is running to become Montana’s junior U.S. Senator. A former math teacher from Butte, her campaign was hastily thrown together following the implosion of Sen. John Walsh’s campaign amid plagiarism allegations.

State Democrats selected Curtis in August, leaving her 80 days to raise funds, assemble a campaign team and build her case to keep a seat that has been in Democratic hands for more than 100 years.

It’s a long-shot campaign that Curtis said she is more than comfortable with.

“It’s a populist, grassroots effort made by people just like me,” Curtis said. “It’s not a bunch of millionaires trying to protect their fortunes.”

Curtis has only one term as a state legislator under her belt, and at 34 she would be seven years younger than any other U.S. senator. She’s got a nose ring, and during her time at the Montana legislature she maintained a video blog on YouTube.

Such things have led some to question her preparedness for the job, but Curtis has no doubts.

“My experience comes from growing up in Montana, not from legislating,” Curtis said. “I don’t have years in politics, which means I’m actually connected to the people I want to represent.”

The job would come with a steep learning curve. Senators, in addition to overseeing the federal budget, must weigh in on everything from judicial appointments and ambassadorships to treaties and foreign policy decisions.

On foreign policy questions, her answers are limited. She called the Islamic State’s brutal campaign in Syria and Iraq “terrible,” and said the group “needs to go away.” Her answer is to call on the president to develop a plan to combat the threat, but she said the U.S. also needs “a clear exit strategy.”

On domestic issues she turns to her own life for guidance. She has advocated for expanded background checks for gun purchases -- her brother killed himself when he was 17 while playing Russian roulette.

She supports implementing the new Common Core education standards, citing her own experience in the classroom.

But she often encounters issues like immigration on which she is the first to admit her views are still developing.

“I’m quickly becoming apprised on things,” she said recently. “I’ve been talking to lots of people and hearing lots of things, which I think is the important part at this stage. I’m a quick study.”

Her opponent, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, more or less refuses to talk about her. The day she entered the race, he said in a press release, “This November, Montanans will have a clear choice between my positive agenda for more jobs and less government, or more government and fewer jobs.”

A look at the political prognosticators may explain Daines’ silence. He holds a 20-point lead in the latest Rasmussen poll, and Nate Silver, the political statistician, has given Daines a 99 percent chance of winning.

Local political observers agree Curtis is a long shot. David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University, sums it up by saying simply, “It’s Steve Daines’ race to lose.”

But that doesn’t mean Montana Democrats have lost all faith.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said he supports Curtis fully and has been making fundraising calls on her behalf. Montana Democrats said Tester will campaign with Curtis in the weeks before the election.

And the traditional pillars of the Democratic Party have all backed her, including Montana’s two largest unions, the AFL-CIO and the teachers’ MEA-MFT

Still, money has been hard to come by. The campaign faced an early setback when it came out that the Walsh campaign could only donate the normal $2,000 of its $700,000 to Curtis directly and the campaign has struggled to raise money quickly.

Parker said Curtis’ lack of money, and the relatively small amount being spent on the race by outside groups, points to more trouble.

“You’ve got to spend money to win races,” he said. “She can’t buy TV ads, and people won’t know who she is. She just doesn’t have time to introduce herself.”

Curtis acknowledged she faces an uphill battle, but said she is optimistic that she can win without outspending her opponent. She even said she has a bit of recent political history on her side.

“I’m just a regular Montanan who was cleaning her yard three weeks ago. Remember, when Tester first ran for the Senate he was outgunned and outmanned and inexperienced too,” she said. “And we all know how that story ended.”

-- By ANDREW BIXLER
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

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