HELENA – More than a year ago, former Democratic Party Chairman Dennis McDonald seemed the clear front-runner for his party’s nomination to take on the tough task of unseating incumbent U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.
But now, on the eve of Tuesday’s primary election, that is no sure thing.
Tyler Gernant, not yet 30, has run an energetic campaign that has even seen him raise more money recently than McDonald, a party stalwart who has the backing of key labor unions and others.
While Republicans were focused on beating up on McDonald, including his long ago work as a lawyer representing organized crime figure-turned mob informant Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, Gernant started making headway of his own.
Less vocal in the race have been Melinda Gopher, a paralegal and Great Falls native, and Sam Rankin, a Billings real-estate broker who previously ran and lost for a state legislative seat in 1982.
Gernant, a Missoula attorney who is a former staff member of Sen. Max Baucus, has staked out turf as the greener of the two candidates.
Democratic voters, frustrated with a string of disappointing challengers to Rehberg in recent election cycles, are likely to be looking for someone they think can topple the five-term incumbent.
McDonald said he is the most electable, and has a lifetime of experience that includes a successful tenure as chairman of the Democratic Party that saw the party win many key races.
“I’ve also taken the position that Montana should develop our natural resources that we’ve been blessed with, mindful that we need to be able to do that in an environmentally responsible manner,” McDonald said. “I think we can. I think we are on the verge of be able to mine our coal in a responsible prudent manner.”
Gernant said he is a stronger advocate of renewable energy, and has been more vocal in opposition to coal.
And despite his youthful age, Gernant thinks he is best positioned to beat Rehberg.
“They say experience is the name we give mistakes, and just because Rehberg has made more mistakes than I have doesn’t make him more qualified to be our congressman,” Gernant said.
Still, history and the apparent rising tide of conservative politics would not seem to be in favor of Democrats toppling Rehberg this election cycle.
For the campaign, McDonald has raised about $150,000, spending most of it in the tough primary battle. Gernant has raised a little less and also has spent most of it.
Rehberg, meanwhile, is sitting on a war chest of close to three-quarters of a million dollars.
Neither of the apparent leading Democrats seem worried about that disparity, and both had busy state travel schedules through the final weekend.
Rankin has run a quieter campaign, raising little money on a pledge to take special interest money out of politics. He also has the unique position for a Democrat of saying that federal entitlements like Social Security need to be reduced in order to save them.
Gopher, a Native American with ties to different Montana tribes, said reservations and rural Montana are being ignored. Gopher, who also has done little fundraising, said it’s time for Democrats to try a different tactic in taking down Rehberg.
“I think I would inspire the native vote to push him out,” Gopher said. “I think I would be the best one because frankly we have been putting white men and white women out there for a while and they have not been able to unseat him. I think I can.”
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