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Montana's 'refreshing' candidate 'needs more time'

By Sean Kennedy, CNN
updated 4:14 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Amanda Curtis speaks before the opening of the Montana Democratic Party's special nominating convention.
Amanda Curtis speaks before the opening of the Montana Democratic Party's special nominating convention.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A late entry into Montana Senate race, Amanda Curtis is unabashedly liberal
  • Many insiders dismiss her candidacy as she trails in polls, but she's raising money
  • On many issues, Curtis admits that she needs to study up, but Election Day is not that far off
  • Curtis stepped in after John Walsh's candidacy imploded over plagiarism allegations

(CNN) -- U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is famous for his flat-top and middle of the road politics. Amanda Curtis, Tester's fellow Democrat and would-be colleague from Montana, is known for her nose ring and her unabashedly liberal affiliations.

Although many insiders dismiss her campaign as a long shot, Amanda Curtis is raising money at a prodigious rate and battling assertions that she is too radical for conservative-leaning Montana.

But on many issues, the candidate admits she needs to study up. But time is running out with Election Day a little more than two months away.

Curtis, a Butte math teacher serving her first-term in the Montana state house, has already raised $180,000 in 10 days, according to her campaign, and sees "people coming out of the woodwork" to support her.

According to Curtis, who spoke with CNN last week, her nomination as the Democratic Senate candidate "came from incredible circumstance."

Curtis added that she had not even planned to seek re-election to her seat in the state legislature, let alone run for the U.S. Senate.

An untested candidate

But that "incredible circumstance" comes with a price for Curtis and the Democrats who thrust an untested candidate into the national spotlight overnight.

When asked her position on the situation in Iraq, Curtis told CNN, "Give me a little more time." On the border crisis, "I'll need more time, you know only 11 days ago I was painting my storm windows."

One area the teacher had a firm answer was Common Core, the controversial national education standards opposed by teachers' unions but supported by the Obama administration.

Curtis said, "I am excited by Common Core, as a teacher ... but there has been a rush to implement it and that's the problem."

Montana State University professor David Parker concedes that "she's clearly rough. ... It's going to take time to get her answers down to sound bite quality."

Not going to back down

But Robyn Driscoll, a Democratic Montana state senator, finds the lack of polish "a refreshing change from the usual spin. ... Her approach tells voters she is not going to back down."

Her priorities: access to public lands, opposition to Rep. Paul Ryan's House GOP budget, and "economic policies for the 100%, not the 1%."

Curtis, 34, has already garnered the support of the state's unions, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's Democracy for America and Tester, the state's two-term Democratic senator.

"As Montana's senior senator, I'll be supporting Amanda as well as all Democrats who are talking about the issues that are important to Montana," Tester told CNN. "Amanda's energy and enthusiasm will be a refreshing change and will bring attention to issues facing working families like education and access to our public lands."

Tester helping out

Tester's spokeswoman Marnee Banks confirmed that he has been helping Curtis fundraise and plans to continue to make calls on her behalf.

When Tester's counterpart, Max Baucus, left the Senate this year for the U.S. ambassador's post in Beijing, Montana Democrats were in a pickle. They needed a replacement.

They chose John Walsh, a decorated veteran, the head of the state's National Guard and its lieutenant governor, to keep the seat blue.

It was already an uphill battle in the Big Sky state against popular freshman U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, the Republican nominee.

Then the plagiarism charges hit after a New York Times story detailed how Walsh lifted large parts of his master's thesis from others' work. Walsh dropped his campaign within two weeks, vowing to stay in the Senate.

Little time to vet candidate

Rushing to fill the seat, they chose Curtis at a nominating convention with little time to vet her for the job.

After the nomination was announced, the state Republican Party circulated a montage of Curtis's Youtube videos that catalogue her first term as a state representative.

In the video, Curtis is critical of gun-rights supporters, calls herself "an anarchist at heart," and explains she had to restrain herself from punching a fellow state representative who expressed anti-gay sentiments.

Chairwoman of the Young Democrats of Montana Marissa Perry said the GOP is taking the remarks out of context in an attempt to smear Curtis.

"I encourage you to watch the whole thing. They are not showing the full story," Perry told CNN.

Curtis, for her part, stands by the videos she contends are being manipulated, and encouraged voters to watch them in their entirety.

"Those videos are my public record," Curtis said.

Conservative criticism

Conservative critics have unearthed other controversial statements and affiliations, including Curtis' association with the Industrial Workers of the World.

IWW is a far left union movement that hopes to "take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth," according to its website. Her husband, Kevin, is listed as a local organizer for IWW in Montana.

Phil Kerpen of the conservative advocacy group American Commitment, which first published Curtis' affiliation with IWW, told CNN, "Plagiarism disqualified a Senate candidate, but extremist ideology, advocacy of violence, and membership in the Industrial Workers of the World results in nothing but praise for his replacement. This is what the Democratic Party has become in 2014."

Curtis campaign manager Clayton Elliot was asked about the union affiliation and criticism, but replied by emphasizing her populist approach.

"Amanda grew up in a family that struggled to put food on the table so she knows first hand the struggles of Montana working families. Unlike Congressman Daines, Amanda believes that we must put working Montana families ahead of corporate special interests," Elliot said.

Dems see her as a net-plus

Democratic strategists see Curtis's firebrand politics as a net-plus, if not for her race, for down ballot races.

They confided that before her entry into the race, liberal voters were unlikely to turn out for the Democratic ticket in an off-year. The Curtis run will change that, they told CNN.

The Senate Democrats' campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is widely expected to lay low and not invest in the Curtis campaign, which is down double digits in the latest polling.

Professor Parker thinks it increasingly unlikely Curtis will receive significant outside support "unless she closes in on Daines in the polls and money race."

For their part, the National Republican Senate Committee is confident that Curtis won't be able to breakthrough against Daines, who has a huge advantage in name recognition and fundraising.

"Our strategy will remain internal, but it seems telling that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is telling allies that they've given up on the race entirely," said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen.

But Curtis backers remain upbeat.

Driscoll said the GOP "should take (Amanda) seriously" since she raised $150,000 in the first week of her campaign "just using social media!"

Calls by CNN to the DSCC seeking comment were not immediately returned.

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