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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.”

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