Hats, caps and Montana politics

The old adage, “The clothes make the man,” could be paraphrased for Montana politicians and candidates as “The hat makes the man.” 

Or not.

Perhaps in no other state as Montana does headgear carry so much weight for a political figure. This has been especially borne out during the race to fill the U.S. House seat vacated by Ryan Zinke. It could be argued that hats, or lack thereof, have been the subtext of the campaign.

Democratic candidate Rob Quist is never seen without a cowboy hat, either in his ads or in public. It does seem a natural fit for him. He wore his hat the whole time he was in The Livingston Enterprise conference room on a recent campaign stop. The subtle message of his hat seems to be, “I’m a real Montanan. I’m one of you.”

Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, on the other hand, not only never wears a cowboy hat — he rarely wears any headgear, save for an occasional cap, as seen in his ads showing him hunting and shooting a gun. 

Gianforte has been accused of being an out-of-stater and not a real Montanan. We’ll leave that up to the voters to decide, but you have to credit his political savvy for not suckering for a cowboy hat. It just wouldn’t work for him and would come off as pandering. He would look like Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in that infamous 1988 ad where he looks goofy wearing a tank helmet on a visit to the military. By the way, Dukakis went on to lose the election to George H. W. Bush, and a lot of the loss was pinned on his headgear.

Gianforte’s sans-hat message seems to be: “Hey, I’m a self-made businessman, I have created tons of jobs for Montanans, and I don’t need a cheap cowboy hat to prove it.”

Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks is a little more of a mystery, both as a candidate and in his head topping. Google images show him both without a hat, sporting a baseball cap, and wearing a cowboy hat. Perhaps a mixed political message there.

What about other Montana politicians? U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is a farmer, so no cowboy hat for him. And you’d be hard-pressed to see U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ head inside a cowboy hat, but he does wear the occasional baseball cap. 

Zinke, on the other hand, will not only wear a cowboy hat, he’ll ride a horse, too — another powerful Montana symbol. He went to his first day on the job as Secretary of the Interior astride a steed and wearing a cowboy hat. That screams Montana. 

A horse is a wonderful political animal, conferring western values and legitimacy when they are needed. On a recent tour of the Westmoreland Coal Company’s Absaloka Mine on the Crow Indian Reservation, Vice President Mike Pence, Daines and Zinke all rode horses. Daines wore a baseball cap, Zinke a cowboy hat, and Pence, wisely, no hat at all.

So far, no ads we know of showing Gianforte, Quist or Wicks on a horse, although there’s still time before the election.

But be careful when using hats and horses to prove you’re a real Montanan or Westerner. You gotta look good in or on them, or you’ll end up looking — and losing — like Michael Dukakis.