Montana finds itself once again thrust squarely into the national political spotlight following Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg’s announcement that he will challenge Democrat Jon Tester for his seat in the U.S. Senate next year. The race, happening amid President Barack Obama’s reelection effort, and with the potential for majority control of the Senate hanging in the balance, will likely be among the toughest and most-closely watched in the nation.
“I think it’s going to be an incredibly interesting race with a lot of important consequences,” Dennis Swibold, a professor at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, said. “I expect a lot of money, a lot of TV ads, and just a real high profile campaign that may start this week.”
At the state level, the race pits Montana’s top Republican, just reelected by a wide margin, against a freshman Democrat with strong grassroots support who won narrowly in 2006. Political observers anticipate the contest will be one the likes of which Montanans have never seen, with the potential to break state records in terms of voter turnout and the amount of money spent – by the candidates, their parties and outside groups.
Though it’s impossible (and foolhardy) to attempt to predict the political climate almost two years from now, both Rehberg and Tester have sufficient legislative records and political history to gain a broad sense of their respective strengths and weaknesses as they face off. Here’s a look at what are likely to be some of the key factors in the quest for a Senate seat representing Montana.
BY THE NUMBERS
Tester is a former state legislator who defeated candidates with more money and name recognition to win the Democratic primary for Senate in 2006. He went on to beat incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns by 3,562 votes, taking 49 percent to Burns’ 48 percent. According to OpenSecrets.org, Tester spent $3.8 million, while Burns spent $7.5 million.
Former Lieutenant Governor Rehberg, on the other hand, cruised to a sixth term in Congress in November, defeating Democratic challenger Dennis McDonald by gaining nearly twice as many votes, with 217,696 to McDonald’s 121,954. In 1996, Rehberg unsuccessfully challenged Max Baucus for the incumbent Democrat’s Senate seat, losing 50 percent to 45 percent.
While Tester has proven he can topple tough opponents, Swibold observed that 2006 was a favorable year for Democrats, and Tester’s campaign benefitted from Burns’ ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Burns’ criticism of firefighters at the Billings airport.
“Some portion of Tester’s vote was from people voting against Burns,” Swibold said. Those circumstances are obviously different with Tester now in the position of incumbent.
Reached at his home in Billings, Burns reflected on the 2006 race, noting that it was a good year for Democrats, with circumstances more recently looking up for the GOP.
“But we’ve had things kind of swinging the other way on this one,” Burns said. “There will be, I think, probably more attention paid to the basic philosophical differences between the Democrats and Republicans.”
In terms of fundraising, Rehberg and Tester are currently evenly matched. Both reported slightly more than a half-million dollars in the bank at the end of 2010. MSU-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson attributed the timing of Rehberg’s announcement to his need to raise funds.
“Minimum, (Rehberg) is going to need $6 million or more to be competitive,” Wilson said. “That’s one key in terms of his decision to run.”
In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision easing restrictions on political spending, everyone interviewed predicted an enormous amount of money will pour into Montana by special interest groups, from corporations to unions, since a small amount of money goes relatively far in Montana.
“In comparison to other states, Montana’s a cheap date,” Wilson said. “You’re going to have tons of soft money spent by those outside groups.”
ISSUES & OBAMA
The strength of the economy, the unemployment rate and the deficit are all likely to be issues voters are concerned with heading into 2012. Should these conditions improve, so too will the electoral fortunes of Obama.
“In 2012, it’s going to be very important what’s going on nationally,” Wilson said. “If the president’s looking better, if the economy’s looking better, that’s going to help Tester.”
But since Obama remains relatively unpopular in Montana compared to other states, it’s unclear how much impact the president’s popularity could have on Tester.
“You can just bet Republicans will tie Tester to the Obama administration as close as they can,” Swibold said. “Tester will show where he’s different.”
While Tester supported the federal stimulus and health care law, he voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and federal bailouts of the auto industry.
Rehberg opposed all of these measures, but has taken fire for swearing off congressional earmarks in a symbolic stance against federal spending – but also being named the member of the Tea Party caucus with the most earmarks prior to his self-imposed moratorium. In December, Tester opposed a ban on earmarks, saying the measure would have little impact on federal spending.
Both Rehberg and Tester can also point to well-intentioned but failed legislation: for Tester, his bill to increase logging and Wilderness; for Rehberg, his balanced budget amendment.
How Montanans evaluate these issues remains as inscrutable as ever in terms of party preference. For example, in 2008, Montana voters demonstrated their notorious unpredictability by picking John McCain for president and re-electing Rehberg, while also re-electing Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Baucus by healthy margins.
“Montanans, they don’t follow much,” Burns said. “They’ve got to cut their own trail, and it’s good that they do.”
A host of other factors, impossible to predict at this early stage, could also arise between now and November 2012. Will the Tea Party movement gain strength? Will the troop drawdown continue in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will a terrorist attack – foreign or domestic – influence voter attitudes?
And then there is the sheer power of the candidates’ personalities, and their perception by voters. In this area, according to UM political scientist James Lopach, the candidates, as born and bred Montanans, are evenly matched. Over the next two years, both Rehberg and Tester will seek to define themselves anew to the electorate, with an eye on the middle, since both enjoy firm support among the respective bases of the left and right.
“What it’s going to come down to is which one of these (candidates) is really a symbol of Montana and the way we live our life here?” Lopach said. “Which image are Montana voters in the middle most comfortable with?”
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