Sarah Vowell: The loneliness of the red state Democrat

(Louise Johns for The New York Times) Steve Bullock campaigning in Montana in October.

Bozeman, Mont. • During the recent U.S. Senate race in Montana — the most expensive in state history — those scamps at the Lincoln Project spent more than $2.5 million trying to help Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock usurp the incumbent Republican Steve Daines. Did their investment pay off? Definitely — assuming it was a sneaky plot to bankroll trail maintenance at Yellowstone.

Bullock — the current governor — and all the other Montana Democrats running statewide were, as a Billings Gazette headline put it, “trounced.” When I heard a TV pundit mention that the party will spend the next few years “in the wilderness,” it occurred to me that given Montanans' affection for the backcountry we need a more regionally appropriate figurative sphere of exile — perhaps “North Dakota”?

The fact that moderate, experienced Democratic candidates from Bullock on down won urban precincts in Butte, Bozeman and Missoula but could not overcome this election’s sky-high rural turnout confirms senior Sen. Jon Tester’s admonition in his recent memoir, “Grounded,” warning his fellow Democrats that in rural America, “We are getting whupped in the messaging war.”

The messages that do seem to work are getting more disturbing and less true. I wonder how many voters fell for Daines’s darkest campaign ad, in which the Wibaux County sheriff accused Bullock of being a tool of the “liberal mob” and “left-wing radicals” who will “defund our police, erase our history and turn America into a socialist country.”

The closest the strait-laced Bullock has ever gotten to a liberal mob was that time he and Tester filmed themselves enjoying the state’s lack of a sales tax at the drive through of a Taco John’s. And in fact, during the last legislative session, Bullock signed into law a Republican bill to increase the lodging tax to pay for a new history museum, the Montana Heritage Center, and attended its groundbreaking ceremony in September. Yet I suspect “erase our history” is a nativist, pro-Confederate dog whistle that indicates how political rhetoric has been nationalized here in the former Montana Territory, designated by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

Further south in the mountain time zone, John Hickenlooper of Colorado defeated the Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. Though Bullock was thwarted and Hickenlooper has yet to be sworn in, they are nevertheless already the most accomplished conservation senators of this century. Panicked by the threat posed to a Republican-controlled Senate by this pair of mild-mannered Rocky Mountain dads, in August Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump rushed into law the Great American Outdoors Act.

Public lands account for more than a third of Colorado and Montana. As Bullock once bellowed to a raucous rally in Helena’s capitol rotunda, “Whether you’re a bird hunter or a bird watcher, each and every one of us equally owns these public lands!”

The Great American Outdoors Act was a frantic attempt to fluff up the ecological credentials of Gardner and Daines to appeal to the Mountain West’s constituency of independents, woodsy conservatives and the outdoor recreation work force, which provides Montana more than 71,000 jobs.

Thus a coal-monger president who gutted the Bears Ears National Monument and a U.S. Senate majority leader with a lifetime score of 7 percent from the League of Conservation Voters made the dreams of generations of tree-huggers come true.

The Outdoors Act earmarks $9.5 billion to address the age-old maintenance backlogs in national parks and other public lands. If Americans no longer share our supposedly shared ideals, we still have joint custody of the Everglades and Glacier Bay, Mesa Verde and the Angel Island immigration station, the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park.

This law also permanently and fully finances the Land and Water Conservation Fund, founded during Lyndon Johnson’s administration in 1964, at $900 million per year. The Conservation Fund has supported 40,000 projects assisting parks, coastlines, monuments, deserts, forests, wetlands and wildlife in every county in the United States. It is subsidized not by taxpayers but primarily by fossil fuel companies engaged in offshore oil and gas drilling. But before the Outdoors Act, it rarely received what it was owed, partly because senators like Daines voted against it.

That the Outdoors Act was a cynical election year ruse to prop up Trump’s senatorial groupies was made obvious this month when the Interior Department blew the deadline to follow through on Outdoors Act projects for the coming year and ordered the Conservation Fund to seek local approval of land purchases, endangering, as Montana Public Radio reported, $13 million earmarked for Montana “that would protect hunting and other recreation land along the Blackfoot River” and “open up over 9,000 acres of land near the Musselshell River.”

Like all his other cabinet officials, a daunting to-do list awaits Joe Biden’s interior secretary.

Two days before Biden was proclaimed president-elect, Daines texted his supporters to kick in $5 to pay for Trump’s legal shenanigans to undermine the continuing vote count because “Dems are stealing the election.”

I want to do my part to help Joe Biden bring the country back together, but on the other hand I’m a smart aleck who’s stuck with six more years of Daines, my new state auditor is a convicted poacher and I refer to my governor-elect, Greg Gianforte, who famously pleaded guilty to assaulting a journalist, as “Buffy the Reporter Slayer.”

When Gianforte — Daines’s old boss at a Bozeman software firm — was running for Montana’s lone House seat in 2017, Freeman E. Robinson of Big Arm, a town on Flathead Lake, wrote a letter to the Flathead Beacon about reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” as a boy and how Gianforte exemplified the Montana value of self-reliance by starting his own successful business (which he sold to Oracle in 2011 for $1.5 billion).

At Bozeman High School, which is also Daines’s alma mater, when my English teacher read aloud from Emerson’s essay, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” I looked over at the class’s other beatnik and we both grinned because an illustrious dead New Englander had just given us permission to go forth and live lives of bohemian adventure. And I wanted to light out and see the world precisely because I wanted to encounter strangers who do not think like me.

Based on the recent Montana election results I didn’t need to schlep all the way to Tibet. I should just spend a week hanging around exotic Richland County, where Daines beat Bullock by 62 points. And I would start by asking the people of Sidney or Fairview the icebreaker question that almost never fails: What’s your favorite national park?

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, is the author of “The Wordy Shipmates” and “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.”