Alex McDowell: Big Sky Country, Big Campaign

On Election Night, most Westporters were most interested in the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

A few cared passionately about a Connecticut contest: Chris Murphy vs. Linda McMahon.

Alex McDowell was consumed by the results in Montana. Would Democratic Senator Jon Tester fend off a tough challenge from 7-term Congressman Denny Rehberg?

The 2008 Staples grad had a ringside seat for that campaign — one of the roughest, most expensive and closest watched in the country.

Alex McDowell

Since June he’d been working in Bozeman. He made calls, knocked on doors, and did whatever he could to ensure the re-election of Montana’s 1st-term senator.

Though far from home, Alex — a former Staples soccer and lacrosse player — knew Montana was crucial to the Democrats’ hopes of retaining control of the US Senate.

Alex was a political science major at Loyola University in Baltimore. But until he arrived in Big Sky Country — just a few days after graduating last spring — he knew little about Jon Tester, or the Montana political landscape.

He interned last fall in Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes’ Washington office. Looking to get involved in a campaign this important election year, Alex learned that several Democratic senatorial candidates — particularly in Massachusetts, Missouri and Montana — needed help.

The Tester campaign hired him. Ten days after graduation, Alex flew west.

He’d already researched the senator. An organic farmer who lost 3 fingers in a childhood meat saw accident, Tester had knocked off Republican incumbent (and scandal-tainted) Conrad Burns in 2006 by fewer than than 3,000 votes.

Senator Jon Tester

This spring, the economy and Romney’s popularity made Montana look like a slam dunk for Rehberg. But when Alex got there the race had tightened. Soon, it was seen as an election that might decide control of the entire US Senate.

Montanans saw more political ads than any other state in the nation. Outside money — and outsiders like Alex — poured in to help both sides.

During several days of orientation in Billings, Alex met fellow volunteers. He was one of the youngest, but most were not much older. Most senior-level staffers were in their late 20s or early 30s.

“You have to be young, because in a campaign like this you have no life,” Alex says. For the next 5 months — with just 1 day off — he solicited volunteers, phoned voters, and knocked on doors.

He talked about Tester’s accomplishments, in areas like veterans’ rights and 2nd Amendment issues.

“With only 600,000 voters in the state, you can really talk to a lot of people,” Alex says. “We got a lot of information on how people were planning to vote.”

As Election Day neared the work turned to persuading undecided voters, and making sure Tester voters got to the polls. Alex calls the last few days “all hands on deck.”

By 11 p.m. on Election Night, results were still inconclusive. Alex went to bed — he lived with a local couple who supported his candidate — then woke up at 3 a.m. Still no news.

The final results came at 9:30 the next morning. Tester was re-elected, by 16,000 votes.

He won Bozeman’s Gallatin County by 4,000 votes. “That made me really proud,” Alex says.

He enjoyed his time in the “cool, hip, young town” — home to Montana State University. Though Bozeman is home to plenty of Californians and East Coast expats, it — and Montana — lean libertarian. “People value their privacy,” Alex says. “There was a lot of blowback from the aggressive campaigns — on both sides.”

Bozeman, Montana State University, and the stunning Gallatin Valley.

He is inspired by the campaign work — and by the senator he helped re-elect.

“Jon is a great guy,” Alex says. “He really cares about the issues. He’s very popular in Washington, because  he’s genuine. He makes tough decisions. Montanans admire him for that.”

Like most campaign workers, Alex is now unemployed. He’s figuring out his next options.

As he does so, he realizes the Tester campaign gave him a number of usable skills.

“I worked in a team environment, with a variety of people,” Alex says. “I learned how to communicate, be flexible and adapt.”

Plus, he says, “I realize I’ve got a pretty good work ethic. I had no idea I could work 5 months straight, morning to night, with only 1 day off.

“This campaign became my life. In the end, it was totally worth it.”

17 responses to “Alex McDowell: Big Sky Country, Big Campaign

  1. What a surprise to see Jon Tester on 06880! Although I grew up in Westport, I moved to Montana in 1985 and consider it home. I had the good fortunate of working a lot with Jon Tester back when he was the Senate Minority Leader in the Montana legislature and I was President of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I worked on his campaign in 2008. He’s an amazingly nice, sincere guy who truly cares about doing the right thing; he’s the real deal. I also met with him several times regarding repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute, which he supported. (He has an openly out, gay son named Shon who he loves, supports and is proud of as any good father should be). Jon is honest, sincere, trustworthy, down-to-earth, humble and an all around great guy — he’s a true Montanan with true Montana values! (Besides: He’s got the best haircut of any U.S. Senator!) That’s cool that Alex got to spend a bit of time in the great state of Montana and work for such a great guy – what a wonderful experience! Alex: Thanks for helping Jon Tester get re-elected!

  2. Bob Knoebel, Bellevue Idaho

    Good job AleX!

  3. Can I safely assume that if a kid from Westport were to help out a REPUBLICAN candidate, you would refuse to write about it?

  4. No, you cannot safely assume that. If I heard about a REPUBLICAN candidate, I would be happy to write about it.

    Can I safely assume you’re a bit defensive?

    • Westport Politics Are A Joke

      Can we all safely assume you’re a little bit Marxist?

      • As a close friend of Dan’s since high school, I can confirm that he hardly qualifies as a Marxist. Yes, his political positions are unquestionably progressive–and he is very open about that–but that hardly equates with Marxism.

        By the way, he has made his living primarily as a free-lance writer since college, so I think the argument can be made that he is actually the epitome of capitalism–he has, in essence, made his living as a self-employed, small business owner. (I can also confirm that Dan was not born in Kenya.)

  5. It’s a human interest story WC, get over yourself…did you actually READ the story? Find a kid from Westport who moved across the country to help out in a REPUBLICAN campaign and let Dan know, he may write another human interest story about that.

  6. Richard Lawrence Stein

    I can honestly say without any hesitation Dan is an equal opportunity person. If Dan had an agenda you would read more about soccer and see a lot less vitriol on this blog.

  7. WC: Your comments seem pretty silly for several reasons: 1) This is a story about a bright, ambitious young man who gets actively involved in democracy and is willing to work hard for candidates and causes he believes in — Regardless of one’s political affiliation, isn’t that a good thing? 2) Come on out to Montana and you’ll find that many of our democrats, such as Jon Tester and Max Baucus, can be as conservative as many East Coast Republicans — they have to be to get elected in Montana; the world’s not so black and white. 3) If you think Dan and his blog are so horribly bias (which they’re not), why do you read it?

    As for me, I am admittedly, staunchly bias: Being a gay Montanan who works in the wildlife conservation profession, I am absolutely thrilled Alex helped with the re-election of a great man like Jon Tester who believes in equality for all and protecting the special wildlife and wild places of Montana. His opponent, and former Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg is unfortunately typical of today’s Tea Party-backed Republicans: A bigoted, fear-mongering, hateful, homophobic and hypocritical liar who worked to rescind and deny rights, freedom and equality for Americans like me; base public policies on misinterpretations from an archaic book; turn our nation into a theocracy, and sell off and develop the unique public wildlands of Montana where wild elk, wolves, grizzlies and an abundance and diversity of other wildlife still have room to roam.

    Thank you Alex! Keep up the good fight!

    • Thus demonstrating that you are bigoted,fear mongering , and hateful. You ahave great sense of irony.

      • No, his characterization of the Tea Party is, if anything, understated. As for the guy who called Dan “Marxist,” I’ve never read a “Marxist” comment by anyone who even had the slightest notion what Marxism is.

      • David Stalling

        If I were indeed bigoted, hateful and fear-mongering that would be hypocrisy, not irony; there’s a difference.

  8. Does WC stand for Whiny and Cantankerous? Happy Thanksgiving!

  9. Sank T. Monious

    I thought it was “Wise and Collaborative.”

  10. Sank T. Monious

    Witch of Connecticut, Maybe?