Montana’s Most Pressing Electoral Issue Is Suddenly China

Both parties are flinging mud, and Asian Americans stand to suffer.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 1, 2019.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 1, 2019. Scott Olson/Getty Images

In a typical election, the most grating political posturing in Montana is white men bragging about guns, hunting, fishing, and other macho pursuits. But this year a new obsession is generating political noise in the state: China.

In one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country, where Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is running to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Daines, China has become a boogeyman deployed by both parties—but particularly by outside Democratic groups pushing for Bullock’s election. It’s a surprising partisan flip of the anti-China script routinely deployed by Republicans, notably President Donald Trump. And its lasting impact may be demonizing Asians in a state that’s 88.9 white and frequently far removed from the machinations of geopolitics.

Outside groups have made this one of the most expensive U.S. Senate races in American history, with over $118 million spent so far, and the noise is overpowering in a state with only a million people and fewer than 750,000 registered voters.

With a rolling barrage of mail, broadcast, and online ads, Democratic groups from outside the state have attacked Daines for his ties to China. The senator spent six years in Hong Kong and China in the 1990s, where he worked for Procter & Gamble, helping the American company establish factories and its consumer business in China. Daines has positioned himself in the race as tough on China, but the ads relentlessly portray him as outsourcing American jobs and cozying up to the Chinese regime.

“No wonder the communist Chinese government called Sen. Daines China’s ambassador in Congress,” says one television ad from the Senate Majority PAC. (For the record, the “China’s ambassador” descriptor was in reference to his work as a senator, not his work for P&G.)

In truth, as Montana political correspondent Mike Dennison reported in reviewing the crush of ads, Daines’s work in China was unrelated to the company’s U.S. operations.

The other line of attack, a Montana beef deal with China heavily touted by Daines that failed to pan out, is more accurate. The Chinese e-commerce company three years ago promised to buy $200 million in Montana beef and fund a $100 million meat plant in the state, but the deal hasn’t materialized. The truth is more banal than the picture of a senator in the pocket of a dangerous regime. Contracts and trade deals with China—which Montana politicians including former Democratic U.S. senator and ambassador to China Max Baucus have sought out for ages—frequently flop.

And Daines himself has pivoted to attacking China, with one ad saying, “Communist China lied about the coronavirus, costing American lives and American jobs.”

The anti-China messaging throughout the campaign is not subtle. Stacks of glossy mailers show photos of Daines transposed onto a Chinese flag background, shaking hands with unnamed Chinese officials, and harkening back to the Red Scare era of anti-communist propaganda in the 1950s. This week, the Lincoln Project, the big-money project funded by a number of former Republicans to unseat Trump, joined the fray with an ad proclaiming Daines “too damn cozy with China.”

And in 2020, anti-China messaging could be particularly resonant with voters because of the coronavirus pandemic that originated in Wuhan. In a state with relatively few Asian Americans, flirting with this kind of messaging might seem like a safe way for Democrats to push independent and Republican-leaning voters away from Daines.

That message might be fresh to Montana, but it’s an old and dangerous one in wider American politics. Russell Jeung, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State University who helped start a group to document the uptick in anti-Asian racism this year, says sustained anti-China political messaging in the United States in 2020 harkens back to earlier American eras when Asian people and countries were painted as an “other.”

“I think it’s perpetuating a long-standing yellow peril fear, it’s a fear that Asia will dominate American jobs, infect people with diseases, and overtake the West,” Jeung said. “That’s why you see the invoking of redbaiting.”

Montana is not the whitest state in the country; the state includes seven reservations, and Native Americans account for nearly 7 percent of the population. But it does have among the smallest number of residents who identify as Asian American—just over 1 percent, according to census data. In a culture where identity politics usually involves bragging about how long a candidate’s family has been in the state, anti-China posturing might seem safe.

“We know that one of the ways in which people campaign is based upon othering, making someone else an ‘other’ we can demonize. In Montana, the other is not fifth-generation Montanan, but someone from far away or another state,” said David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University.

The university’s polling indicates even more Montana voters now believe China covered up the pandemic at the start than in the spring. That, Parker says, indicates the anti-China political messaging is working, and it might be enough to sway Montana’s storied independents—some of them Trump voters, many Republican-leaning—to vote for Bullock and give the state two Democratic senators. Polls show a race likely to come down to the wire.

“Demonizing China works, especially among independent voters,” Parker said. “It makes Daines seem like someone not connected to Montana and connected to this foreign place.”

But the longer, more dangerous impact could lie in racism against Asian people and countries that, in normal times, are economic partners and allies.

“China’s an easy target right now because of the coronavirus,” Jeung said. “For Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, there is clear impact on our health and safety, as we see an increase in racism, not only in interpersonal violence, but in anti-immigration policies.

“This rhetoric is pretty damaging for the Asian American community.”

Kathleen E. McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist based in Butte, Montana, after many years in China. Twitter: @kemc

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