Montana Voters Deciding State, Congressional Races

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Voters were to decide Tuesday whether to hand Denny Rehberg a sixth term as Montana’s congressman and where the balance of power will fall in a state House that is now evenly split.

Voters were also asked to pick a new Supreme Court justice and to accept or reject four ballot initiatives.

Rehberg, the Republican incumbent, is up against challenger Dennis McDonald, a first-time candidate and the former chairman of the state Democratic party.

Rehberg won 75 percent of the Republican vote in his June primary victory, where he faced challengers for the first time as an incumbent. He has since moved toward the state’s burgeoning tea party movement by joining the new congressional Tea Party Caucus, while trying to hold onto his centrist ties by praising Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer for keeping the state budget in check.

McDonald, meanwhile, has tried to color the incumbent as an ineffective politician with no real accomplishments to speak of during his tenure in Congress.

He has attacked Rehberg on the congressman’s lawsuit against city of Billings over the way firefighters dealt with a 2008 blaze that damaged subdivision land developed by his company. McDonald also said Rehberg used questionable judgment when, after a couple drinks, he allowed staffers in August 2009 to join him on a boat that crashed while being piloted by state Sen. Greg Barkus, who is fighting charges that he was drunk while driving the vessel.

Tuesday’s election could also mean a shift in power in the Legislature. Republicans are trying to win majorities in both chambers after a rowdy primary that saw GOP voters backing roughly half of the candidates favored by hardline conservative activists.

But backlash against the federal government and Montana voters’ tradition of defying expectations add up to an unpredictable outcome.

Democrats now hold organizational control of the House, which is split 50-50, because their party controls the governor’s office. In the Senate, Republicans have a 27-23 advantage.

The final days before the election were marked by political hit mailers both sides were sending in key legislative districts. At the same time, elected leaders like Rehberg and Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus traveled the state rallying the faithful to get to the polls.

In the Supreme Court race, Helena attorney Beth Baker and Livingston judge Nels Swandal are competing to fill the seat of retiring state Supreme Court Justice William Leaphart.

Swandal has attempted to attract conservative voters in the nonpartisan race, issuing statements in support of gun rights and in a television advertisement where he mentions past support of Republicans. Baker has focused more on highlighting her backing from both high-profile Republicans and Democrats.

The ballot initiatives include a proposed 36 percent cap on payday loan interest rates, which proponents say will keep people from becoming trapped in a cycle of debt and which payday loan companies say will put them out of business.

Another measure would abolish 7,800 guaranteed outfitter-sponsored hunting licenses and raise fees for out-of-state clients of professional outfitters.

The final two initiatives deal with the state constitution. One is a proposed constitutional ban on new real estate transfer taxes. The other asks whether the state should call a convention to rewrite the constitution.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.