A siren whine and flashing blue lights -- the only other car on a lonely stretch of Highway 89, just outside Monarch, Montana, pulls up behind me. "You were clipping along there pretty good, and this is when the deer are crossing the road," said the highway patrol officer, after asking for my license, registration and proof of insurance. Eighty-two in a 70 mile-per-hour zone. I tried to explain that I had my foot to the floor in order to make the Joy or Despair soiree Tuesday night at Democratic senatorial challenger Jon Tester's HQ in Great Falls. "I am going to have to write you a ticket," said the officer. The price of reporting on Election '06 from the heartland had just gone up.
Five minutes later, after a herd of about a dozen deer had crossed the road heading down to Belt Creek at the canyon bottom, the officer was back at the window. "I could have written you for 82 but I'm dropping it to 80 so it won't go on your record," he said with a smile. "Thanks," I said. "Well, have a good time at the Tester party," he said.
"Did you vote today?" I asked, as he started to walk away. "Voted this morning." He smiled at my next question. "Jon Tester," he answered. "And I am a registered Republican ... Jon Tester just seems to represent my interests better than [incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad] Burns. In fact, most guys like me, cops, have got the same feeling and voted the same way."
An hour later, inside the confines of "Tester-istan" -- in the Heritage Hotel in Great Falls -- the crowd was monitoring the first national returns on CNN, with talking heads trying to explain how Montana is fundamentally a 'red' state and would likely remain Burns' turf. I tracked down Montana's hugely popular Democratic Governor, Brian Schweitzer, and told him about the highway incident -- and the word of Tester-voting cops, Republicans to a man.
"HB 35," said Schweitzer, grinning, not missing a beat. "That is legislation that we passed in 2005 that raises the ceiling on salaries and benefits for our highway patrolmen and cops," he said. "We have this in the bag."