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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis of Butte, visiting Salish Kootenai College in Pablo as she campaigns in western Montana, speaks with Joe McDonald (right), the college’s founder and president emeritus. 

Mike Dennison/Missoulian State Bureau

Editor’s note: Today, the Missoulian presents the first in a two-Sunday series profiling the Democratic and Republican candidates for Montana’s open seat in the U.S. Senate.

Standing before a political science class at the University of Montana, longshot U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis doesn’t hold back as she tells students about her family history.

“I’m just going to give you my dirty laundry,” she says. “I’m doing this so that you truly see what kind of family I come from.”

Her parents divorced when she was 4, in Billings, and her father had a restraining order filed against him. She says on visitation days, she and her brother had to meet him at the mailbox at the end of a cul de sac.

Her mother had severe bouts of mental illness that kept her in bed for days, Curtis says, and her grandfather and an uncle each hanged themselves in their jail cells, after being arrested for drunkenness or drunk driving.

And her 16-year-old brother, Luke Morse, fatally shot himself while playing Russian roulette, two weeks before she graduated from high school in 1997.

“I’m just picking out the worst, to kind of drop that bomb on you this morning, to tell you that I’m not a silver spoon-fed politician,” Curtis says.

Then, Curtis makes the point she’ll make often during a recent campaign swing through western Montana: That “regular people” can still overcome adversity, get an education and become political leaders – but only if the average person shows up and votes.

It’s a message that Curtis, a 35-year-old high school math teacher and Democratic state representative from Butte, hopes can propel her to victory in Montana’s U.S. Senate race, against Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines and Libertarian Roger Roots.

Two months ago, Curtis wasn’t even a candidate.

The campaign of the incumbent and Democratic nominee, Sen. John Walsh, was reeling after a news report that he had plagiarized a master’s degree paper at the U.S. Army War College in 2007. Walsh pulled the plug on his campaign Aug. 7, and nine days later Montana Democratic Party delegates chose Curtis to take his place on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

Curtis began her campaign from scratch, with virtually no money, no staff and next-to-no name recognition.

Daines had been leading Walsh in the polls and most observers now consider him a heavy favorite in the race against his new opponent.

Curtis says the national Democratic Party apparatus isn’t helping her and has written off the race, which once was considered a key battleground in Republicans’ attempt to win majority control of the U.S. Senate.

She concedes that winning is a longshot, and says it’s even more difficult because Daines is “hiding” from her and won’t agree to any debates or joint appearances until two weeks before the election.

“He’s using this multimillion-dollar budget to use perfectly scripted sound bites,” she says.

Daines’ campaign manager, Jason Thielman, noted that Curtis didn’t attend a candidate forum in Colstrip on Aug. 21 – five days after Curtis was nominated – where Daines appeared, and that Daines debated Walsh in June on statewide TV.

“After skipping out on the first candidate forum she was invited to, Amanda Curtis definitely knows a thing or two about hiding,” he said.

***

Four weeks out from the election, Curtis has yet to air a single radio or TV ad, and sent out her first campaign mailers just last week.

With almost no traditional media campaign, she has been traveling the state, meeting with voters and support groups wherever and whenever she can. She says organizers tell her attendance is exceeding expectations at these events. She’s banking on the enthusiasm spreading through word of mouth.

“We’re using this opportunity to build relationships with people who’ve felt forsaken by politics,” Curtis says. “Just going and spending the time with them is just really an important thing to do.”

Political insiders say a grass-roots campaign can succeed in Montana, but it takes time, which Curtis doesn’t have. Curtis, however, insists it’s not too late, and that she can win.

“I think they’re wrong,” she says of those who’ve given up on the race. “I think Montanans have had several instances of showing them that they’re wrong. And Montanans will do it again.”

Everywhere she goes, Curtis draws the contrast between her background – a teacher, from a broken family, living on a modest income – and that of Daines, a congressman and wealthy former executive for a Bozeman software-development firm.

She also notes their differences on key issues, expressing her support for the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – and for raising the minimum wage, gay marriage, keeping abortion legal, greenhouse gas regulations and a Montana logging and wilderness bill.

But until a few years ago, Curtis says a foray into politics was the furthest thing from her mind.

Curtis briefly attended Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., in 1997 before returning to Butte, where her father lived, and eventually enrolled at Montana Tech. She earned a degree in biology and later a teaching certification and got a job teaching math at Butte’s Catholic high school, Butte Central, for $17,000 a year.

Curtis says she had nearly $37,000 in student debt to pay off, so she had to find a better-paying job – and got one 65 miles away, teaching at Helena Middle School. She commuted to work every school day. Finally, in 2009, she got what she calls her “dream job:” teaching math at Butte High School.

Without the commute, Curtis had an extra three hours a day on her hands. She says she was looking to get involved in her community when she saw a newspaper ad for the Butte-Silver Bow Democratic Central Committee.

She went to the meeting, ended up getting elected as a Democratic committeewoman, and started volunteering on campaigns. Three years later, a friend called and asked her to run for the Legislature.

“And I said, ‘No way, I am not a politician,’ ” Curtis recalls. “I’m a teacher, not a politician.”

But she says the friend, labor organizer Terry Minow, convinced her with the same message Curtis is now conveying in her U.S. Senate campaign: That people with everyday lives and “real-world experiences” are the ones who can and should be making the decisions that affect everyone’s daily lives.

Curtis easily won the Democratic primary in House District 76 and was unopposed in the general election. At her first and only legislative session, she sponsored bills on firefighters’ pensions and education funding, but her most prominent bill – Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposal to require contractors on state jobs to hire Montana workers first – got quickly killed in committee on a mostly party-line vote, with Republicans opposed.

***

Curtis also made a name for herself by posting 87 videos on the Internet during the session, each one featuring her speaking into the camera, summarizing the day’s events and adding her own sometimes pointed comments.

Curtis says some of her colleagues warned her the videos might hurt her future political career, but that she saw them as a public service, and has no regrets about doing it.

Curtis had intended to run for re-election to the Legislature in 2014, but redistricting erased her district, requiring her to challenge a fellow Democratic incumbent if she wanted to run again. She chose not to run, instead deciding to focus on other projects, including establishment of a local radio station.

But then came the implosion of the Walsh campaign, and friends and supporters started asking her to consider being his replacement. She also got the backing of organized labor and decided to step in, winning the nomination easily on Aug. 16.

Since then, she’s been campaigning full-time. On a sunny fall day in late September, Curtis visited Missoula, Kerr Dam, Pablo and Arlee, meeting with college students, Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal officials, staff and faculty at Salish Kootenai College and supporters at a fundraiser and dinner at Arlee.

She got a warm reception at the college in Pablo, where fellow teachers said they’re thrilled to see one of their own running for the U.S. Senate and emphasizing education.

At the Arlee Community Fitness Center, about 60 people showed up for a chili dinner and fundraiser on the center’s basketball court and bleachers. Curtis moved among the crowd before dinner, shaking hands, posing for pictures and chatting with supporters, including business owner Donna Mollica.

Mollica said she’s thrilled that Curtis stepped into the race, and that she doesn’t believe the conventional wisdom that the race is over.

“There’s something nice about who (Curtis) is,” Mollica said. “I’m not so sure she doesn’t have a chance. … I think she has good grass-roots support.”

Curtis drove home the same message as she addressed the dinner crowd, giving them a “homework” assignment of talking to friends, contributing some money and spreading the word.

“Montanans have done this before and Montanans are going to do it again,” she said. “It’s going to take all of us to put one of us in the U.S. Senate.”

Next Sunday: An in-depth profile of Republican senatorial candidate Steve Daines.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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