After Sen. John Walsh was discovered to have plagiarized his 2007 thesis and dropped out of this year’s U.S. Senate race, the Montana Democratic party was left scrambling for a candidate. When they finally selected one on Aug. 16, the party did not play it safe — the choice was Amanda Curtis, a 34-year-old math teacher from Butte elected to the state Legislature in 2012 and known mainly for her quirky YouTube blog updating Montanans on happenings within the Legislature.
Unfortunately for Curtis and Democrats, their opponent is Steve Daines, a behemoth of fundraising prowess and name recognition. The current state representative has collected over $5 million as of June 30 (according to OpenSecrets.org), and was leading John Walsh by 14 percentage points based on a Real Clear Politics poll average.
So, in the face of Daines, does Curtis stand a chance?
Curtis, as would be expected, expressed optimism after her nomination. “I’m not a sacrificial lamb,” she said. “I’m going to win, and I’m going to come out swinging for the fences, and I believe this is a winnable campaign.”
However, Associate Professor of Political Science David Parker said he “doesn’t see the path forward for a Curtis victory,” based on two factors that are squarely against Democrats. The first factor is based on fundamentals of this election. This is a midterm election, and midterm elections lead to a more conservative electorate as younger voters fail to show up at the polls. In addition, people traditionally punish the President’s party in a midterm election, and this will probably happen again — the latest Gallup poll shows the President’s approval rating at 43 percent.
The other factor is based on the nature of the campaign and the candidate. Unfortunately for Curtis, Parker explained, she has no story or relationship with Montanans. And with about two months to go before Election Day, there is hardly any time for Curtis to establish the name recognition which Daines commands. This is especially true given her fundraising situation — the money spent on John Walsh will not be transferred to her campaign, and she will probably not be able to raise the funds herself for a significant advertising blitz. According to CNN, she raised $180,000 in the first ten days of her campaign — not bad, but still a pittance compared to Daines’ war chest.
Needless to say, Curtis has a difficult task ahead of her — but it would be premature to call a victory for Daines. There are still things Curtis can do to give herself a chance in November.
Right now, Curtis’s biggest hurdle is establishing name recognition and an identity of her own. A vote for Curtis is simply an anti-Daines vote — obligatory for Montana Democrats — and not necessarily an endorsement of Curtis herself. Unfortunately for Democrats, many young voters will not come out to simply vote against Daines. They need a candidate who excites them; they need someone they can rally behind, like they so famously did for Obama in 2008.
Curtis, who visited MSU’s campus on Tuesday, has the potential to be that candidate. She’s a woman — exciting in this context given that Montana has never had a woman in a U.S. Senate seat. She’s young — in fact, she would easily be the youngest U.S. senator if elected. She can take advantage of her blue-collar roots and establish a contrast between herself and Daines, the wealthy businessman who represents people in Congress that she said “tilt the playing field to the wealthy and against us regular working folks,” to reporters upon her nomination. Sure, many candidates on both sides of the aisle have used the narrative of people being fed up with “politics as usual” — but it may prove effective following one of the most unpopular U.S. Congress sessions in history. She just has to convince voters that she can actually make change happen.
As another way of drawing in young voters, she can take on the issue of student debt as one of her main causes. “Today, rising student loan debt has become an economic crisis,” she recently said at the University of Montana, “deterring our young people from going to college and saddling our graduates with insurmountable debt.” She already has a six-point plan to improve education in Montana, which involves enacting legislation to help students with outstanding loans and expanding access to the Pell Grant program. This is a cause Curtis should emphatically champion in campuses and communities throughout the state.
“As senator, Amanda will continue fight for working class families, for students, for women and for all Montanans who need a voice in Washington,” Curtis says on her website (which is in desperate need of a redesign). Most likely, Curtis will not get that opportunity — but don’t count her out yet. With a perfect campaign — and a little Butte Irish luck — there is a small chance we could see a historic upset this November.