Rehberg in Familiar Role as Obvious Front-Runner

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg is in the familiar position of being the obvious front-runner in his re-election bid, but says he is not taking anything for granted in a primary in which he faces challenges from both the left and the right.

Rehberg, who considers himself a “conservative Republican,” is facing challenges from two political newcomers. One, lab scientist Mark French, seems to be riding the rising tide of tea party politics to mount a campaign as someone even more conservative.

So far Rehberg, seeking his sixth term as Montana’s sole congressman, has easily outpaced the fundraising of French and A.J. Otjen, a marketing professor at Montana State University-Billings. The incumbent is also easily raising more cash than the four Democrats vying for their party’s nomination and a chance at Rehberg in the November election.

Rehberg, a former rancher and lieutenant governor, has been making a steady diet of his town hall meetings, saying he has had roughly 45 so far this election cycle. Although such meetings and other travels around the state are technically dealing with congressional issues, they also allow him to discuss his message with voters.

And that message has been heavy in opposition to what Democrats in Washington D.C. have been doing.

“When you have an election every two years like I do, you are really never not a Congress person, or not on a campaign,” Rehberg said. “You are still out there stating your message and creating a contrast of philosophies.”

Rehberg has raised close to a $1 million and had about three-fourths of that on hand in May.

Last summer, Rehberg made headlines when a Flathead Lake boat crash injured him and left an aide in a coma for more than a week. He was on board the boat piloted by state Sen. Greg Barkus of Kalispell, who has been charged with criminal endangerment and two counts of negligent vehicular assault for allegedly drinking while driving the vessel.

But that has not been much of an issue at all in the primary. Instead, the rising tide of those most interested in more conservative politics is at the forefront with such issues as a balanced federal budget and strict adherence to constitutional principles.

French, who on his website says he even considered running under Constitution Party banner, said he thinks he has a chance because Republicans he meets seem interested in a more conservative message.

He said Rehberg once voted for the Patriot Act, which French views as unconstitutional, and decries the overspending under the Bush administration and Rehberg’s Republican colleagues in Congress.

“This is a year of anti incumbent mentality,” French said. “The government is even more out of control now.”

Rehberg, a staunch critic of the Obama administration, is confident in his conservative credentials. He said he tried to convince fellow Republicans, back when they were in charge, that they needed to make spending reduction a bigger priority.

He is convinced that will happen if the GOP gets another crack at leadership.

Otjen, running as a more liberal “Teddy Roosevelt” Republican, seems to be playing a much smaller role in the primary battle.

Otjen featured endorsements from such groups as Republicans for Environmental Protection, and is the only one in the primary saying that cutting taxes, while raising spending, is a poor way to grow the economy and get the country out of debt.

The more far less conservative message does not appear to be catching on with Republicans in a year when tea party politics have captivated the party’s attention.

Rehberg said he may not be the most conservative Republican in Congress, nor the most conservative in Montana, but said he has a long track record in Montana dating back to his days in the state Legislature in the 1980s of advocating for conservative principles.

The incumbent, who has not had a difficult re-election test in years, said he plans to keep meeting with voters throughout the election season.

“I will never rest on my laurels, and I will never take the voter for granted,” Rehberg said. “I still have a vigor and enthusiasm for the job.”