Politics

08.15.14

Meet Montana's Nose-Ringed Candidate for the U.S. Senate

A week ago, Amanda Curtis was a just math teacher from Butte with a TED talk. Now she’s the last-minute frontrunner to hold on to the Democrats’ Big Sky Senate seat.

In recent years, Montana has been electing a certain breed of burly, alpha male Democrats. Brian Schweitzer, the state’s longtime Democratic governor, was a brusque rancher with a bolo tie and its two-term senator, Jon Tester, is a farmer with a crew cut.

Democrats thought they could continue their streak of high-testosterone candidates this year with John Walsh, the former commander of the Montana National Guard. Then, it turned out Walsh had plagiarized his master’s thesis. With the ensuing controversy, Walsh, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Max Baucus in February, dropped out of the race against Rep. Steve Daines.

Now, when Montana Democrats meet to select a replacement on Saturday, the frontrunner isn’t a grizzled white guy with a rural background; it’s a 34-year-old high-school math teacher with a pierced nose who talks with pride about her TEDx talk.

In the scramble to replace Walsh (who dropped out last Thursday), Amanda Curtis has quickly emerged as the cream of a not particularly distinguished crop. Curtis, a first-term state representative from Butte who posted YouTube videos for every day that the Montana legislature was in session last year, has already received the backing of the biggest union in Montana and is attracting enthusiasm from liberal activists. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Curtis said she was “honored and humbled” to even be considered. The state representative, who isn’t running for reelection this year, said she “started getting texts, Facebook messages, emails, and phone calls” from “big Amanda fans” all over the state after Walsh dropped out. She made the decision to jump in after feeling it would be hypocritical not to run after her TEDx talk on “showing up and saying yes.”

Curtis told The Daily Beast that, if elected, her top priority would be campaign-finance reform. However, on other issues, she still was sketching out her positions. When asked about the situation in Iraq and the Obama administration’s response, she didn’t have an answer. “I’m still studying a lot of these issues. I’m planning to listen to all sides and make these decisions listening to regular Montanans,” she said. She pointed out that “you have to appreciate please that I was painting my storm windows [this time last week].”

She also commented on what might be her most distinguishing feature, her pierced nose. Curtis said that she and her husband were just discussing this and she noted “I would probably be the first with something like that elected to the Senate.” But, it’s not a sure thing that the stud would stay in her nose through Election Day. Curtis worried that it might be “a distraction” and was “not opposed to [removing it] if it’s going to be an issue” in the campaign. In fact she was surprised that no reporter had asked about it already and told The Daily Beast, “You get the prize.”

She also came fervently to the defense of outgoing Sen. Walsh. “I think he’s a man of integrity,” she said. “I think that one example of his incredible integrity is [his decision to drop out]… you could contrast him with Sen. [Rand] Paul, who has gone around giving plagiarized speeches and hasn’t stepped down.”

If nominated, Curtis faces some major obstacles to being elected in the Republican-leaning state.  She’d have to raise sufficient money to compete and build up a campaign organization from scratch with only 80 days until Election Day. Further, while Democrats were hailing the progress Walsh was making in the race prior to the scandal, the appointed incumbent was still down seven points in the polls. Curtis ducked questions about polls and state of play, saying, “I’m not a political analyst.” She did insist that the race would be winnable if Daines would debate her. Although she admitted that she might “seem like a little bit of a long  shot,” her plan was to just “swing for the fences” and to try to attract voters “who haven’t been involved in the process” or are simply sick of the status quo.

In the meantime, win or lose, it doesn’t seem like Curtis will get back to painting her storm windows in the near future.