HELENA – U.S Rep. Denny Rehberg this week will announce his plans to run against Montana Sen. Jon Tester in 2012, setting up a match-up between the Republican congressman and first-term Democrat that likely will be one of the most hotly contested Senate races of 2012, a longtime Montana Republican confirmed Tuesday.
The Republican with direct knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press that Rehberg will announce his candidacy at a GOP dinner Saturday in Helena. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to discuss the decision.
Rehberg’s campaign has said previously that the congressman received encouragement to run.
Both Tester, a populist farmer, and Rehberg, a GOP favorite who has cozied up to tea party politics, have prepared for months for a 2012 showdown as Republicans attempt to take back the Senate. Tester’s spokesman called Rehberg’s candidacy “the worst kept secret in Montana.”
In 2006, Tester rode a wave of vocal support from Democrats to narrowly beat incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns. Tester has since burnished his policy credentials as he’s worked to improve Montana’s veterans facilities, job stimulus programs and border security issues. He has been an outspoken enthusiast on gun rights, at times running counter to the Obama administration on the issue.
“We look forward to comparing Jon’s record over the last four years to anyone’s, especially Congressman Rehberg’s,” said Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy. “Jon’s campaign has been prepared for this announcement, if that’s what you want to call it, for a long time.”
Rehberg, who has been noticeably more comfortable attacking the policies of President Barack Obama than he was defending those of former President George W. Bush, is sure to make issue of Tester’s votes in favor of stimulus spending and federal health care reform.
The 2012 race will mark Rehberg’s second run at the Senate. In 1996, he lost a fairly close bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Max Baucus at another time when national Democratic policies were hurting Democrats back home.
On Saturday, conservative favorite Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann will be a featured speaker at the dinner where Rehberg is expected to announce his candidacy.
State Democrats are coming off a very tough election after a flagging national party brand dragged them down further than most anticipated. But Rehberg has baggage of his own.
In 2009, Rehberg and several staff members were severely injured in a boat crash on Montana’s Flathead lake. The boat was piloted by former Montana state senator, Greg Barkus, who was recently given a four-year deferred prison sentence for the crash.
Last year, Rehberg also faced sharp criticism for filing a lawsuit against the city of Billings over the way firefighters dealt with a 2008 blaze that damaged subdivision land developed by his company.
Still, voters in November overwhelmingly elected Rehberg to a sixth term while his opponent struggled to raise money and gain much traction statewide.
Rehberg and Tester have sparred for more than a year, with each side increasingly pointing out the other’s perceived foibles, Rehberg, for example, has opposed a logging and wilderness bill proposed by Tester — opposition that was particularly frustrating to Tester because he had worked to secure bipartisan support in the state for the measure.
Following reports of Rehberg’s planned announcement, at least one Democrat, state legislator Franke Wilmer of Bozeman, quickly announced intentions to run for Montana’s lone House seat, which would be left open by Rehberg’s departure.
Meanwhile, the current Republican in the Senate race, Bozeman businessman Steve Daines, scheduled a Thursday news conference in which many expect he will announce that he will instead run for the House seat to be vacated by Rehberg.
Daines has put up impressive early fundraising numbers since first announcing his candidacy in November.
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