BOZEMAN, Mont. — Before we get to the point, keep in mind that during Montana’s recent primary election, in the Second Congressional District race in Garfield County — a stretch of eastern badlands and prairie nearly the size of Connecticut — 14 Democrats voted. Then again, maybe that is the point.
After the 2020 census, Montana regained the second House seat it lost 30 years ago. Here in the western mountains where I live, the First District could be competitive for Democrats if the college towns and Indian reservations can outflank clumps of Trumpists and armed Christian separatists. But when I asked Dorothy Bradley — a Democratic icon since she got elected to the state legislature as a 23-year-old in 1970 — about the Second District, she replied point blank, “A Democrat can’t win in eastern Montana.”
She is, however, floating a Plan B. In April, Ms. Bradley invited to the Capitol in Helena her opponent in the 1992 gubernatorial race, Marc Racicot, the two-term governor and former chair of the Republican National Committee. In the contest for the House seat in the eastern district, they endorsed an independent, Gary Buchanan, who is running against Montana’s current at-large representative, Republican Matt Rosendale. The Bradley-Racicot endorsement was a singular milestone in Montana politics, as if the C.E.O.s of Pepsi and Coke called a truce to sell some Dr. Pepper.
President Biden’s plea to rational Republicans and independents to vote for Democrats in the midterms, as a ploy to root out authoritarian Republican extremists, could persuade the already persuadable. But winning the popular and electoral votes in 2020 does not change the fact that he lost in about 2,500 of the nation’s 3,000 or so counties. While the Republican Party spurns observable reality, the Democratic Party has alienated most of the continent (which is also unrealistic in a republic if governing is the goal). In landscapes where, as former Senator Conrad Burns described eastern Montana, there is “a lot of dirt between light bulbs,” defending pluralist democracy might require a pluralist task force. Realistic Democrats allying with Republican defectors and the unaffiliated to elect civic-minded independents could look like the bipartisan coalition backing Mr. Buchanan and an experiment south of here in Utah.
The Utah Democratic Party decided not to field a U.S. Senate candidate and instead endorsed the independent Evan McMullin, a former C.I.A. officer who ran for president in 2016, to oppose Mike Lee, who initially supported Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election. That was a stirring, patriotic feat. Still, what did they have to lose? The last Democrat to win the Senate in Utah was born in 1911 and lost to Orrin Hatch in 1976.
These independents overlap in ways that could be instructive in future races — levelheaded centrists with establishment support and a sense of place running against mortifying Republican oddballs in regions where Democrats are pariahs. And while Mr. Buchanan has raised about twice as much money as his Democratic opponent, the fact that Mr. McMullin doesn’t have a Democrat to contend with has helped propel him to a statistical tie with Senator Lee, according to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
No responsible American can vote for congressional Republicans — with few exceptions, like Senator Lisa Murkowski — for the foreseeable future because of the threat that party poses to orderly elections. Montana’s Representative Rosendale, who voted against certifying the 2020 election results, personifies that threat.
Mr. Buchanan, who owns an investment advisory firm in Billings, made a last-minute decision to run for the House after Mr. Rosendale voted against a bipartisan resolution titled “Supporting the People of Ukraine.”
How do you know if your representative is not the least bit representative? When the House votes 426-3, and yours is among the three.
Mr. Buchanan described that vote as the moment “when embarrassment became shame.” It’s worth noting that our right-wing governor, Greg Gianforte, was so offended by the invasion, he started immediately divesting the state’s Russian assets, proclaiming, “Montana stands with Ukraine.” It’s such a near-unanimous position that even I will stand with my journalist-clobbering governor, though I will be 10 yards away wearing my dad’s welding helmet.
Pondering Representative Rosendale’s peculiar record (he was also in the minority when the House voted 394-18 to support Sweden and Finland joining NATO), Mr. Racicot summarized his disapproval: “These aren’t necessarily moral judgments. These are almost mathematical judgments.”
Though I voted for Dorothy Bradley in 1992, I do find Mr. Racicot, as a former R.N.C. chair who publicly endorsed Joe Biden for president, to be a reliable sherpa in ascending to the ideal of country above party.
“I don’t care about the things that are debatable, that thoughtful people can argue about and come to different conclusions,” he told me. “What I care about is betraying the country and betraying the democracy.” Because of fidelity to the Constitution, he argues that “a lot of people are to the point where they can finally say: ‘You know what, I’m not a Democrat first. I’m not a Republican first.’”
A man in a bar recently asked Mr. Buchanan if he’s an F.B.I. agent or a Mormon. He looks like he served as Montana’s first Department of Commerce director in the early 1980s. Sounds dull, yet those were desperate years, when much of the old Montana up and died — the Butte copper mine, the Great Falls refinery and the Anaconda smelter shut down, and the farm crisis incited hundreds of farmers in Montana and the Midwest to take their own lives. Mr. Buchanan oversaw “Build Montana,” a program focused on beefing up what’s now the economic pillar of tourism. He created the still ubiquitous “Made in Montana” label to promote homegrown products, a marketing ploy I fall for every time I face life’s jelly and jam dilemmas. Endangered fossil fuel towns might appreciate his experience with tough transitions. And his fealty to the right to privacy in the Montana Constitution, which guarantees abortion rights (for now), provides an alternative to Representative Rosendale’s rigid opposition.
Mr. Buchanan told me that when he’s out campaigning in the eastern district, he meets Montanans who have never heard of the category of independent, but they instantly see themselves in that word. More than 40 percent of Americans identify as independents, according to a Gallup poll — the biggest bloc in the country, outnumbering either party. That figure should shame both parties’ leaders into deep self-reflection.
When I saw photos of Mr. Racicot and Ms. Bradley standing beside Mr. Buchanan for endorsement, my first reaction was relief that there might be a plausible home remedy to Representative Rosendale and his ilk. Last month, in Livingston, I noticed about a dozen Buchanan yard signs and zero for his major party opponents. I know hardcore liberals in Helena and the Shields Valley who plan to vote for him.
While I wish I could reach a comforting conclusion about the improvised communities bucking up these western independents for the greater good, partisans putting aside heartfelt differences is not necessarily a sign of hope but a warning that the two-party system has failed them. Congress is supposed to compromise, not voters.
Sarah Vowell is the author of, among other books, “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” and the producer of an oral history of the Montana Constitutional Convention of 1972.