Cover Story
THREE'S COMPANY: Steve Daines, Tom Cotton, and Bill Cassidy (from left to right).
Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Bozeman Daily Chronicle/AP; Danny Johnston/AP; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
THREE'S COMPANY: Steve Daines, Tom Cotton, and Bill Cassidy (from left to right).

Boots on the ground

Politics | Three candidates with real-world experience lead the GOP attempt to oust Senate insiders

Issue: "Into thin air," Aug. 23, 2014

WASHINGTON—In 2008, when Barack Obama captured the White House, Bill Cassidy taught medical students in Louisiana, Steve Daines worked for a technology company in Montana, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas fought in Afghanistan. Six years later, the three Republicans are running to seize Democratic-held Senate seats in Republican-leaning states.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats this November to control the Senate. In the GOP’s favor: Democrats must defend 21 of the 35 Senate seats up for reelection. In Democrats’ favor: Cassidy, Cotton, and Daines are vying for seats that have been in Democratic hands since 1883 in Louisiana, since 1913 in Montana, and for 131 of the last 137 years in Arkansas. Moreover, Cotton’s opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, and Cassidy’s opponent, Sen. Mary Landrieu, both come from storied political families in their respective states.

Take a closer look, though, and the mountain does not seem insurmountable. Two years ago Mitt Romney won Louisiana by 17 points and Arkansas by more than 23. That same year Republicans took control of the Arkansas legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Polls have shown Daines with a double-digit lead in Montana over his opponent, Democrat John Walsh, who is facing charges of plagiarism in a final paper for the U.S. Army War College.

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All three candidates not only have political positions with appeal in their states but appealing lives as well. 

WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA hit in 2005, Bill Cassidy spent the first 24 hours cleaning up his house. The electricity was out. Phones jammed. The population of Baton Rouge had doubled overnight with evacuees driven inland by the storm.

Clearing debris from his yard, Cassidy heard a radio plea for doctors. Cassidy, a professor of medicine with Louisiana State University, spent three days helping displaced patients get their dialysis and chemotherapy treatments. Then, learning that thousands of new patients were headed his way, Cassidy converted an abandoned Kmart into a field hospital. 

The place hadn’t been used in four years. Grease and grime covered the floor. Half the lights were busted out and the transformer was inadequate. Cassidy went to several churches looking for volunteers. A church maintenance worker recruited electricians and plumbers while others spent 24 hours cleaning up to make way for the busloads of wounded.

Cassidy’s response to the 2005 storm wasn’t his first experience with people facing hard times. Nearly 20 years ago he founded the Greater Baton Rouge Community Clinic for the uninsured. The organizers decided against the expense of a building and devised a “virtual” clinic by integrating the uninsured patients into the doctors’ regular practices. The uninsured had set appointments, which helped them keep jobs because they didn’t have the long waits at public hospitals.

Cassidy’s heart for the poor can be traced to his childhood. His dad had gone from job to job in town after town, sometimes falling behind on house payments. The family settled in Louisiana, but the teenage Cassidy wasn’t a serious student until he suffered a cancer scare. The tests came back negative, but the care of his doctors made Cassidy think about medicine.

“God used that in my life,” he says: “Otherwise I never would have been exposed to medicine.” Cassidy cleaned up his grades and headed to LSU, where he also received his medical degree. Raised Episcopalian, Cassidy, 56, is now a member of Chapel on the Campus, an evangelical church where he and his family teach Sunday school for 4- and 5-year-olds. He met his wife, Laura, at a Bible study in Los Angeles where Cassidy did his medical residency at a hospital for the uninsured.

In 2008, GOP officials asked Cassidy to run for a House seat. He and Laura, a surgeon, prayed, and she told him, “The future of healthcare is going to be decided in the next four to eight years, and you ought to be there.” Her prediction came true. Cassidy won election to the House the same fall that Obama won the White House. Obamacare was soon born. Now Cassidy wants to move to the Senate to roll back some of Obamacare’s mandates.

STEVE DAINES, 51, likes to climb mountains. He scaled the 12,807-foot Granite Peak, Montana’s highest mountain, and Wyoming’s Grand Teton. He proposed to his wife, Cindy, while on top of a 10,000-foot summit, Hyalite Peak, south of Bozeman. His adventurous spirit traces back five generations to when his great-great-great-grandmother immigrated to Montana from Norway. A widow with seven children when she arrived in Montana, she homesteaded in the northern part of the state near Great Falls.

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