As I stood in the state Capitol rotunda on April 29 and watched Gov. Steve Bullock sign the expansion of Medicaid, I was proud of our state and its people. Sure, I went to watch because I had written three columns about the issue over the previous year. I went because the signing symbolized the triumph of moderation and compromise over ideology, partisanship and extremism. I went because good policy for people was trumping soiled politics. I went because I wanted to celebrate Montana saying "no" once again to out-of-state moneyed interests who were trying to dictate policy to the people of Montana, but came up short.
The Montana HELP Act was a flat-out rejection of the Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity juggernaut, which thought it could use brute political power and unlimited money to make a national political point at the expense of needy Montanans.
Yet this was not the first time Montanans stood tall and rejected this kind of out-of-state effort. Thirty-three years ago, Montanans also said “no” to similar efforts of a powerful right-wing, well-funded national group which was trying to take out Montana Sen. John Melcher in his 1982 re-election bid.
Thanks to Montana’s streak of independence and some talking cows, the National Conservative Political Action Committee was sent packing by Montanans.
Just two years earlier, in 1980, NCPAC was the leading political force which helped unseat nine respected Democratic U.S. senators, allowing the GOP to take control of the U.S. Senate as Ronald Reagan entered his presidency. Two of those senatorial losses were neighbor states: Frank Church in Idaho and George McGovern in South Dakota. Following those 1980 wins, NCPAC sharpened its knives, licked its chops and made Montana’s John Melcher its No. 1 national target for 1982.
Just like the Koch brothers’ AFP when they targeted Montana Medicaid expansion in 2014 and 2015, NCPAC in 1982 “high-rollered” into Montana with a lot of money to defeat John Melcher.
NCPAC put over 1,000 political ads on the air claiming John Melcher was “too liberal” and “out-of-step” with Montana.” It was daunting. It was scary. I know because I had worked on John Melcher’s Montana field staff and was helping manage his 1982 re-election campaign.
The senator and campaign concluded that we had to fight back. We needed to point out from where these attacks were coming and let Montanans know how much money was being brought into the state to bludgeon the voters into NCPAC’s political corner. Once Montanans knew the facts, we hoped, they would see the attack for what it was worth — and reject it.
Credit John Melcher, the Senate’s only veterinarian, with the idea that we should use some truly native Montanans – talking cows – to unveil the NCPAC story to Montana voters. As Ben Goddard, our media consultant, and I sat in a Billings hotel room to draft the initial text of the ad, we had no idea how it would play out.
Wikipedia says it well, referring to the “moo cows for Melcher” ad: “Melcher's response became a classic of campaign advertising, featuring a shot of an ‘out-of-stater’ carrying a briefcase full of money, followed by a conversation among several cows deploring their intervention in the race.”
“Montanans aren’t buying it, especially those who know bull when they hear it,” said the announcer. One cow said that the out-of-staters “had been stepping in what they’re trying to sell,” while another noted, as she nursed a calf, “he kept calling me a steer.” Google up “Melcher talking cow ads” to see the famous ad itself and a lot of textbook narrative about it, as it has become a model for using home-spun humor to make a political point.
So, NCPAC was ridiculed and laughed out of the state. Melcher won re-election with a 13 person margin over his GOP opponent. But it wasn’t easy and it was no laughing matter. NCPAC was serious and the Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity outfit are serious, too.
Montanans need to remain serious about telling these big-money out-of-state individuals and groups to take their bad ideas and go home. That’s another reason I was in the rotunda celebrating on April 29.
(Personal note: Condolences to Senator Melcher and his family over the loss in late May of Ruth, his wife and partner of almost 70 years.)