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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Homegrown Candidates Tout Their Roots; Do Voters Care?

 Native-born Montanans have a deep sense of pride. But if you’re one of the 54 percent of Montana residents born elsewhere, you might wonder why that seems to be such a big deal in the state’s election campaigns.

Montana candidates are eager to show voters that they and their families have deep roots in the Big Sky Country. Most TV ads feature the candidate telling viewers how long his or her family has been here.

In this year’s U.S. House race, both major-party candidates are touting their generational roots.

Democrat John Lewis says he’s a fourth-generation Montanan. Republican Ryan Zinke began the race saying that he’s a third-generation resident but then discovered two more generations in his familial lineage during the campaign.

Birthplace surfaced as an issue in the U.S Senate race. Republican Steve Daines says he is a fifth-generation Montanan, though he was born in California. At the age of 1, his parents moved their family back to the state.

Democrats jumped on that earlier this year, demanding that Daines produce a birth certificate. The flap was reminiscent of the “birther” charges that once dogged President Barack Obama.

Birthplace and roots are obviously important to some, but does this really matter to Montana voters?

Maybe, says professor David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University. Montanans want to know that their elected officials know the state and have its best interests in mind.

“When someone says I’m fourth-, fifth-, sixth-generation Montanan I think it’s also a signal to say, ‘Well we ‘ve made it here, we have a commitment to this place,’” Parker said.

But he doesn’t think it has a significant impact on elections, and history bears him out. Of the state’s 22 U.S. senators, only five were born in Montana. Of the 33 people elected to Congress, just 11 were born in the state.

University of Minnesota professor Eric Ostermeier, who’s studied the question, writes that it took Montana 71 years to produce its first native-born senator, Lee Metcalf. Like other relatively young Western states, Montana imported its major officeholders for decades.

Of Montana’s 24 governors, only 10 were born here, though the trend toward native sons and daughters has picked up since the election of Montana’s first homegrown governor, Roy Ayers, in 1936.

Nine of the 13 governors who followed him were Montana-born.

Parker said experience is probably more persuasive to voters. For instance, a candidate from a different state with an agricultural background is more likely to connect with voters with that background too.

But Parker doesn’t dismiss the appeal of Montana roots entirely.

“In a place like Montana, in particular, that is undergoing some pretty big changes, I think there’s this idea that if you show a connection to a place, you have more of a right to speak for that place and know what is best for that place,” he said.

Non-native candidates might have a more difficult time making a connection with people who have lived here all of their lives, he said.

“It’s harder for someone who is first generation to speak the language that resonates with Montana,” he said.

UM School of Journalism

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