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What a Montana farmer could teach Romney and Obama
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is in a heated race for re-election, but he's not afraid to tackle the thorny issues that Romney and Obama are terrified to touch
Dana Liebelson
Dana Liebelson
I

n Washington, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana is largely known for two things: Competing in one of the most closely watched races in the Senate, and his devotion to Montana beef. Millions of dollars have been flowing into Tester's race, where he's neck-and-neck with Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), an extreme conservative who stands against everything from women's health programs to putting the gray wolf on the endangered species list.

But there's much more to Tester than his race against Rehberg (not to mention the Democrat's idiosyncratic habit of packing Montana beef in a cooler and bringing it to D.C.). Tester is a senator with bipartisan appeal, a lawmaker who champions the kinds of important issues that Mitt Romney and President Obama meekly avoid. The presidential candidates could learn quite a bit from this third-generation Montana farmer:

1. Take a stand against secret campaign spending
In 2010, a Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) opened the floodgates for corporations to secretly donate money to U.S. political campaigns. Specifically, the ruling held that corporations and unions could not give money directly to individuals, but could do so indirectly through super PACs like Karl Rove's conservative American Crossroads or the pro-Obama Priorities Action USA.

Actively fighting the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision — Tester is like a Western sheriff cleaning up a corrupt town.

Mother Jones, which dubs donations from these organizations "dark money," details how this ruling has changed the democratic process for the worse. For example, in one New York election, a Democrat was beating an anti-abortion activist with little political experience by 12 points, when two weeks before the election, American Crossroads poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the activist's campaign. The right-wing activist won by a few hundred votes.

Both Romney and Obama take advantage of the ruling and accept super PAC donations. (Obama took a strong stance against Citizens United when the decision was made, but has since changed his mind and joined the super PAC party.) But Tester? He not only (unsuccessfully) beseeched Rehberg to join him in boycotting super PAC money for the duration of their campaign, but he's actively fighting the U.S. Supreme Court's decision — like a Western sheriff cleaning up a corrupt town.

In January, Tester showed his support by backing a proposed constitutional amendment to reverse the decision (the Montana Supreme court also issued a ruling in 2011 that contradicted Citizens United.) The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately refused to hear the case, but I wager that Tester hasn't given up.

"I don't think the forefathers envisioned when this country was set up that we would have corporations that had the same rights or more rights than people," Tester told NPR.

2. Stop giving defense contractors blank checks 
Last year, the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting came out with a report revealing that at least one out of every six dollars spent on defense contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan has been lost to waste, fraud, and abuse. The total amount has surpassed $31 billion.

Tester, who co-sponsored legislation to establish the commission, said of the report: "It is long past the time where we start to bring accountability and change to the way American contractors do business for this country." 

Tester isn't just talk: Last year, he also worked with the Montana National Guard to draw attention to how the U.S. government paid tens of millions of dollars to contractors and subcontractors for workers' compensation insurance, but didn't get anything in return. 

Given that the Project On Government Oversight has found that reducing spending on Department of Defense service contracts by only 15 percent could save taxpayers $372 billion, it's disheartening that neither Romney nor Obama has come forward and admitted this is a problem. It takes a Montana cowboy to do that. 

3. Stop trying to defund Planned Parenthood 
This particular criticism is, of course, directed at the Romney-Ryan ticket, as Obama has already demonstrated his support for family planning clinics. 

Romney and his vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan have a two-pronged plan for federally defunding women's health clinics that perform abortions — even though it's already illegal for federal money to be used to fund the procedures. They plan to gut Medicaid and also scrap Title X Family Planning, which has provided low-income family planning care for decades. 

Nicole Safar, public policy director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, told me that under the Romney-Ryan plan, in her state "we wouldn't have any chance to fund women's health."

If both Medicaid and Title X are slashed, clinics across the U.S. could be forced to close — leaving countless low-income women without access to birth control and preventative care, like cancer screenings and tests for sexually transmitted diseases. 

For Tester, this one is a no-brainer. He has opposed elimination of Title X and advocated for ending co-payments for preventative care. Earlier this year, he also sat down with the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America to reaffirm his commitment to family planning clinics. 

"The Montana state legislature a year ago was the only place more screwed up than D.C.," Tester said at the event, according to The Bozeman Daily Chronicle. "Women were compared to cattle at one point."

Secret spending. Billion-dollar waste. Women's health. As the Montana Senate race heats up, it's worth reminding our presidential candidates to follow Tester's example on these three important issues. And as a permanent Montana resident, I'll be voting for him come November (even though I'm a vegetarian.)

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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