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Campaign 2018: Windshield Time With Montana's Congressional Candidates

Montana Department of Transportation

Driving across the great expanse of Montana isn’t for the faint at heart. During the winter it can be a white knuckle experience with motorists confronting icy and snow packed roads, strong winds, and ground blizzards. Any time of the year critters can jump out on to the roadway.

This is what our candidates for statewide office face as they bounce from one campaign stop to the next on the seemingly endless ribbon of blacktop, gravel, and gumbo roads that connect our far-flung population.   

YPR’s Jackie Yamanaka was curious about this so she reached out to each candidate for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House with this request:

  • What do you drive and why? 
  • Do you have an anecdote from the road?
  • Please submit a photo with you and your vehicle.

Below are the responses from the candidates (or their campaign), who appear in alphabetical order.

Credit Troy Downing

Troy Downing, Republican U.S. Senate candidate

What I drive and why?

2004 Suburban. Troy has put over 40,000 miles on it campaigning across the state of Montana. Absolutely need a 4 wheel drive vehicle.

My memorable campaign road trip:

Troy and the team took a campaign trip to Billings in white out conditions and the car got hit with a big rock from a truck. They all thought it was a bullet - it was so loud and it shattered the windshield. Good thing the driver at the time was a Green Beret and Troy in the front seat, who served two tours in Afghanistan, was unfazed - everyone stayed calm and collected.

Credit Russ Fagg

Russ Fagg, Republican U.S. Senate candidate

What I drive and why?

My truck is a 2006 Ford F150, with 132,000 miles.

This truck works great because I can put highway signs and yard signs in the back, and put two people and campaign pieces in the backseat.

We are closing in on 15,000 miles on the truck, and have had some horrendous roads.

My memorable campaign road trip:

Last Saturday night we drove home from Miles City in a blinding snowstorm, at times getting down to about 15 to 20 mph on the interstate. A two hour trip took nearly 3 1/2 hours.

Par for the course in Montana.

Credit Greg Gianforte

Greg Gianforte, Republican Congressman

What I drive and why?

I am driving a GMC Yukon. It gives me a little more girth on the road with Blizzak tires. Blizzak tires are really the key. When we have snow pack it’s better than studs and actually I’m not allowed to advocate for a product but I love Blizzak tires.

It’s important. This is the job. My job is to be a voice for all of Montanans back in Washington, DC and the only way I know how to do it is drive the same roads everybody else drives, visit the folks. A Yukon, I like a vehicle that’s a little bit bigger. It’s 4-wheel drive. And I can put a lot of junk in the back.

My memorable campaign road trip:

The video, that happened this week. We left Kalispell early Sunday morning to go over Marias Pass. We were still in blizzard conditions. The plows had just gone through. (below is a video from that drive through Marias Pass, video courtesy of  Greg and Susan Gianforte).

So much snow got accumulated on the undercarriage and in the doors. I got to Great Falls; it was -19 F. And I couldn’t close the doors so the overhead light inside the car wouldn’t go out and I was worried that the battery was going to go dead. So, we ended up putting the Yukon in someone’s garage to defrost it so I could actually close the doors again and not have a battery go dead.

There was another harrowing situation. I was in Miles City 2 weeks ago and we had to drive back to Billings late at night. It was black ice and snowing, tractor trailers, white out conditions. It was 3 hours of white knuckle from Miles City to Billings. So, I’m thankful to be here.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka

John Heenan, Democratic U.S. House candidate

What I drive and why?

We drive my GMC Yukon with a grill guard on the front because it’s really safe. It’s 4-wheel drive and we can’t get stuck and we can get to the next place we need to get safely.  

Road conditions are often snow packed and icy as we often find them here in February. But we go nice and slow and we have a big battle tank to drive.

My memorable campaign road trip:

I haven’t hit anything, I’m glad to say.

And it is funny the expectation. Everyone has this kind of visual of, “Are you driving yourself?” Sometimes I drive myself, but often I’ll have a staffer driving so that I can make calls to people as I travel. But cell coverage is so spotty in Montana.  People just have this vision of a candidate making constant phone calls while somebody else drives. The reality of Montana is just that’s not the case.

It’s funny as I talk to other congressional candidates from across the country, New York or Seattle. I mean you can take an elevator to the top of a building and look at your entire district. Montana not so much, right. Geographically we’re a little bit more spread out.

My wife and kids went to Universal studios last week – Harry Potter World – and got warm for a minute in California. I did another 2,000+ miles of Missoula, Helena, Lewistown, and back home to Billings. And I get back on the road again tomorrow morning.

Credit Grant Kier

Grant Kier, Democratic U.S. House candidate

What I drive and why?

I drive a 2017 Chevrolet Colorado Pickup Truck when out meeting with voters around the state. So far we’ve put about 15,000 miles on it, so it also serves as a mobile campaign HQ when we’re out on the road for days at a time. Most importantly, it’s reliable and safe.

If you talk to any of the folks who have worked for me over the years I worry a lot about the safety of my team on the road. This rig can accommodate my team and our gear and I know we can get anywhere in the state and make it back home again safely. It’s got a diesel engine so we save on fuel and I know we have plenty of life in the engine to keep meeting with and hearing from voters well after we win this election.  

My memorable campaign road trip:

One of the most memorable road trips from the campaign so far has to be when I was driving from the Blackfeet Reservation to the Flathead, through East Glacier. That drive reflects the diversity of our state in every way. It was the middle of fall, so it was that perfect time of year when the trees and fields are that beautiful gold color, but the peaks of Glacier Park were a deep dark blue.

Traveling through these diverse communities and looking out across those iconic landscapes serves as such a great reminder why I’m doing this, to serve all Montanans and to protect what we have here for future generations.

Credit Lynda Moss

Lynda Moss, Democratic U.S. House candidate

What I drive and why?

I drive a 2014 BMW X3. Not only does it have a comfy back seat for my frequent travel partner, China (my Bernese Mountain Dog and certified therapy dog) it is one of the safest rated vehicles in the country. 

My memorable campaign road trip:

My campaign team has been on these historically snowy and cold roads constantly and this vehicle saved my life even before the dead of winter. Traveling with a staffer to Great Falls, a deer leaped from the burrow onto the highway near Belt, directly into my windshield.

All at once, the space was filled with a canon-ball like "BOOM!" followed by an eerie quiet and calm, followed by the realization the air was filled with a chalky-like substance and slight claustrophobia from the airbags all around you. Not to mention feeling the inevitable finish for that poor deer.

We were all okay, China included, and graciously saved by the kindness of strangers. Right away, a driver of a large semi-truck stopped behind us - emergency blinkers on - kept oncoming traffic at bay. Another gentleman helped us gather our stature and led us safely off the scene. In the meantime, a business across the street towed my totaled vehicle off the highway. 

I didn't make it to Great Falls for the campaign stop, but the evening provided wonderful insight into how Montanan's readily help others in times of crisis. I've always believed that our connections are stronger than our differences and this experience only emboldened it. 

As for my BMW- the old one is gone - and I was lucky to find the same make and model to drive again thanks to Dana Motors in Billings. Campaign travel can be dangerous, but also enlightening and full of natural beauty and I wouldn't want to travel any other way. 

Credit Al Olszewski
Al Olszewski

Al Olszewski, Republican U.S. Senate candidate

What I drive and why?

My campaign truck is a 2012 GMC 4WD crew cab. I can carry all my campaign supplies and I have been able to travel in all weather situations.

My memorable campaign road trip: 

Last April 2017, I was traveling to a Lincoln Reagan Dinner in Conrad when I came across a high speed accident at the Essex bridge at the southern tip of Glacier Park on highway.  A mini van, traveling westward, departed the road to avoid a head-on collision. It sheared off a power pole and ended up on the edge of a ravine overlooking the middle fork of Flathead river.

As one of the first people on the scene, my driver Jim Lynch and I found the driver out of the van and entangled in the live power lines and slowly sliding down the ravine towards the river. Without hesitation, Jim and I jumped down the side of the ravine and stopped the driver's slide further into the power lines. I did a quick medical assessment and decided he was stable enough to be pulled up the ravine. Jim and I carefully pulled him out of the power lines and protected his neck and spine. After several minutes, we were able to get him to the side of the road.

While Jim sent drivers to call for an Alert helicopter, I did a secondary medical assessment with the help of Pam Lynch, a nurse. Once stabilized, Pam and I evaluated the two other occupants of the car who had minimal injuries. Then we waited in the cold rain keeping our patients warm to the best of our ability. One and one half hours later the Alert helicopter and 2 ambulances arrived. In a rush of wind and the sounds of sirens, the flight nurses and EMTs worked efficiently to load the 3 patients into the transports. With a salute from the flight crew, the air ambulance took to flight into the overcast sky. The ambulances took off to the west. Once again it was silent. The rain continued to fall. The traffic lines disappeared. Cold,wet and tired, Jim, Pam and I climbed back into the vehicle, and headed off to the first Lincoln Reagan Dinner of the campaign season.

Credit Jared Pettinato

Jared Pettinato, Democratic U.S. House candidate

What I drive and why?

For eighteen years, I drove a used, 1994 Ford Mustang. After I recently donated it to Trout Unlimited, I bought a 2013 Ford Explorer. I only buy American cars because of my father's union roots. I needed something with four-wheel drive that could protect my drums from the weather while carrying my snowboard.

My memorable campaign road trip:

Every week creates a new memory.

This past week, I drove to Bozeman late after the Missoula forum for Democratic Congressional Candidates. Missoula felt unseasonably warm, but I hit a blizzard west of Deer Lodge.

At moments, I couldn't see the road, the signs, or other cars through the blowing and drifting snow. I thought about stopping, but getting off I-90 seemed just as dangerous as continuing. I slowed to thirty and eventually found a semi whose red taillights I followed to the other side of the blizzard.

Credit Matt Rosendale

Matt Rosendale, Republican U.S. Senate candidate

What I drive and why?

I’ve put in a lot of windshield time campaigning around Montana in my diesel Dodge pickup--the same one I use for work on my ranch. With four-wheel drive to handle whatever weather or road conditions along the way and plenty of room for both additional people and campaign materials - like signs - my pickup has everything I need.

My memorable campaign road trip:

In 2014, I was driving back from Butte after attending a parade for St. Patrick's Day in a true Montana blizzard – very low visibility, extremely cold and icy conditions. Driving over Homestake Pass on I-90, we watched a terrible car wreck unfold in front of us that resulted in some serious injuries to the occupants of the vehicles.

A couple members of my campaign team had first aid training and jumped into action to address the injured, while I and other members of my team helped slow and direct traffic. After almost 30 minutes in the biting cold, we were able to clear traffic for an ambulance to arrive. After working with emergency crews to finish up at the scene, my team and I headed to our next event later that evening.

Credit Jon Tester

John Tester, Democrat U.S. Senator

What I drive and why?

This depends. Often I will fly straight into the city I have events in so that I can spend more time with constituents and less time driving. If I am coming from the farm, Sharla or I will drive our GMC Sierra (pretty good in the snow!).

My memorable campaign road trip:

There are too many memories to even mention. Take the day that I was with you in Bozeman. The morning began at 6 a.m.. We had two events in Helena before heading over to Bozeman, where we had five events - three campaign and two official events. From there, Sharla and I weathered the storm back to Big Sandy, where more than a foot of snow had fallen over the course of the day. But we have to get back to the farm because there’s work to do - when the snow melts there’s a big risk of flooding.

The next day, we had to drive to Great Falls Sunday night because we were worried I wouldn’t be able to make my flight to DC the next morning. Usually I have to leave the farm in Big Sandy at 2 a.m. to make the 5 a.m. flight to Minneapolis, where I then connect to get to Washington in time for the first votes Monday evening.

Last weekend, Sharla was literally towed out of the farm because the snow was so deep to drive through.

When I’m driving around Montana I usually don’t let staff drive the dirt roads. I usually drive us back to the farm because I know the shortcuts and staff doesn’t know the back roads like I do. The drives often bring up memories, and I like to tell stories on the drive from Rudyard to Big Sandy about some of the troublemaking I got into as a kid.

When I was campaigning for the Montana Senate, I got up early one day and left for Helena to cut some radio ads with the governor at 8 a.m., or so. As I recall this was in September. I left the farm at 5 a.m., the sun hadn’t come up yet and the deer were like a picket fence on the side of the road between Loma and Fort Benton. I was driving my 1976 VW Beetle and hitting a deer was not on my to-do list.

I eyed every deer on the road edge and made it past the cement plant at Fort Benton. I breathed a sigh of relief and continued on my way to Helena. At Carter, not one but two deer jumped out of a roadside shelterbelt. I hit them both and killed them dead. The car didn’t look too great, but it was apparent if I pulled the right front fender away from the wheel that the old VW was still drivable. So I pulled the front fender away from the tire that was still inflated and down the road I went. By the time I reached Great Falls I further assessed the damage under a street light. I made it to Helena, and we cut the radio ads. Morale of the story - if you are going to hit two deer, make sure you are driving a rear engine car.  

I was on a drive in 2014 with some folks and we were passing through several feet of fresh snow while driving through East Glacier. My staffer, who was driving, told me she wasn’t sure how we could get over the pass, but we decided to press on anyway. Before heading over Marias Pass, we stopped to fill the Chevy Suburban up with gas, just in case we needed to pull over and needed heat for the night. We were only going 20 to 25 miles an hour, literally pushing the snow with the vehicle, which was over the tires. There were no tracks in front of us. We were supposed to arrive in Kalispell at 6 p.m. or so, but didn’t get in until closer to 9 p.m.

Finally, Sharla and I and staff had finished a long day in western Montana. It was snowing hard, but we had to get home as I had a beef to butcher at the neighbor’s place. To stay on the road between Missoula and Lincoln we literally drove from one reflector to the next. Sharla kept her eyes peeled for the road edge and cars driving in front of me as did I while driving the GMC Sierra LT. We made it to Lincoln and both of our eyes were bloodshot from the straining. The snow ended on the east side of Lincoln and that was the end of our reflector work, but nonetheless we were still a bit keyed up and wide awake due to the previous 80 miles. Then about 10 miles out of Lincoln we caught a glimpse of something running towards the highway, we slowed just in time to see a Mountain Lion not run, but saunter in from of the pickup. An incredible sight and one of the reasons Montana is the greatest state in the greatest country in the world.

Credit Kathleen Williams

Kathleen Williams, Democratic U.S. House candidate

What I drive and why?

I didn't buy a campaign vehicle, I drive my personal Ford C-Max Energi.

When I was buying a car, I wanted to put my dollars where my ethics are. I believe in clean energy, and I wanted to make the most of the solar panels on my roof, but I also love taking long trips across Montana. So a plug-in hybrid seemed like the best choice. It's a hatchback, the closest thing I could get to a crossover. I put camo seat covers on it to make my hunting dog, Danni, feel at home. In my 24 years driving in Montana, front-wheel drive with studs in the winter, and chains as a back-up, have worked just as well as four-wheel drive, and it saves me money!

When I registered my car, I learned about a license plate maker that gives a portion of their proceeds to support veterans' cemeteries. I decided to purchase them in memory of my father, who served in WWII, and my late husband Tom, who was a Vietnam-era veteran and later staffed a USDA civilian mission to help rebuild post-war Iraq's agricultural sector. 

My memorable campaign road trip:

The day after I filed to run for office in Helena, I pulled over at Wheat Montana to fill up and make some calls. While I was on the phone, someone pulled up to the next pump. Lo and behold, it was one of my opponents! It was a good reminder that retail politics, with all the travel it requires, still wins in Montana. Road tripping is how we Montanans roll.

Reporter's notebook:  This reporter also has harrowing tales from the campaign trail.  The most memorable was during the 1992 gubernatorial campaign.  While driving back to Billings late one night from a campaign event in Bozeman I encountered a load of rail road ties across both lanes of I-90.  Since I was going highway speed I didn't see them until they were right in front of me.  I hit the ties, went airborne, "Dukes of Hazard" style. 

I "limped" the car into Big Timber and found the courthouse (This was before cell phones were common place) and reported the incident to the Sweetgrass County Sheriff's Department. Somehow I drove back to Billings, well after midnight.  That vehicle was part of the motor pool from Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings).  The campus no longer has a motor pool,  so I generally rent a vehicle for work-related travel. My personal vehicle is a 1997 F-250 diesel pickup because I have a 450 gallon water tank in the back to haul potable water for the house. The vehicle also can pull a gooseneck stock trailer.