This article was reported in collaboration by High Country News and Montana Free Press
In late July, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines visited the small town of Cascade, on the Missouri River. The occasion: Spectrum’s announcement that it would bring broadband to the town’s nearly 800 residents. Many remote parts of the state still lack cellphone service, never mind high-speed internet. Daines framed the event as a victory, telling a TV station that he was on “a full-court press” to bridge the state’s digital divide.
“I’ve been told broadband is amazing,” said Mike Moore, 57, president of Cascade’s Stockmens Bank, in late September, about seven weeks after the Montana Republican’s visit. But he also allowed that the existing internet was “perfectly satisfactory.”
The bank lobby was closed because of COVID-19, but when I walked up to the drive-through window, Moore waved me inside to a back room with an elk mounted on the wall. Soon his father, Murry S. Moore, 81, the town’s mayor and the bank’s CEO, arrived on a motorized scooter. When it came to the upgrade, Mayor Moore said, “It’s not like I’m sitting at home waiting for it.”
There may be a digital divide in Angela or Busby, but Cascade is only 30 minutes from Great Falls. Why, I asked, was the announcement such a big deal? The mayor, who has sculpted white hair, shrugged: “It was just a political opportunity.’’
I had come to gauge their reaction to this year’s battle for the state’s open Senate seat: Daines, the Republican incumbent, versus Steve Bullock, the sitting Democratic governor. As one of the few races that could tip the balance of power in Washington, D.C., it has become increasingly nationalized, vicious and expensive. In such an atmosphere, any news can be sharpened into an advantage or a weapon. Montanans’ social media feeds are full of targeted micro-ads.
The outcome could threaten the state’s legacy of independent politics, where idea-based voters proudly split their tickets. Montana has not voted for a Democratic president since 1992; it has not voted for a Republican governor since 2000. This year, though, the races for governor, senator and Montana’s lone congressional seat could all go Republican, fundamentally shifting the state’s dynamic. The most closely watched contest, the Senate race, is too close to call.
The Moores are both Republicans who say they oppose big-government regulation, but their ideas span the aisle. Mayor Murry said he sometimes splits tickets. His son called the Affordable Care Act, which Daines has repeatedly voted to repeal, “a great deal.” His father said, “I kinda think anybody who wants Medicare should just be able to sign up for it.”
“But that’s what the Affordable Care Act does!” said Mike Moore. His father added that once you were on Medicare, you shouldn’t be able to back out.