Montana Could be Tough for Obama in 2012

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Jon Tester isn’t likely to have President Barack Obama in the state helping him — or hurting him.

In 2008, President Barack Obama contested the state, helping lift many Democrats to victory. It brought a rare presidential contest into the state.

But this year, Montana doesn’t appear to figure into Obama’s win strategy. And that means the U.S. Senate Contest between freshman Democrat Jon Tester and challenging congressman Denny Rehberg will likely have the full spotlight.

It also means that local Democrats can’t rely on Obama’s campaign money for organizing, which helped fuel a get-out-the-vote campaign four years ago that left the Montana GOP stinging.

In a recent video message to supporters, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina — a former Montana political operative — laid out several winning strategies. None included winning Montana, where the campaign spent millions in 2008 only to still fall short of winning. It was a rare foray for a presidential candidate into a small state that almost always goes for the GOP presidential candidate.

The backlash in Montana, like many similar states, to the president’s key policies will make the state even more difficult to carry for Obama, said Montana State University political scientist David Parker. A recent poll found the president had a 32 percent approval rating in the state.

“Obama did well in 2008 due to two factors: depressed GOP turnout and increased Democratic turnout,” Parker said. “Without contesting the state, Obama will not do as well.”

That leaves the political stage to Tester and an already fierce challenge from Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg. Both sides are counting it as one of the biggest Senate races in the nation as both Republicans and Democrats seek control of the Senate.

Montana Democrats benefited greatly in 2008 from a get-out-the-vote campaign fueled by big Obama money and a long list of eager volunteers. State Democrats aren’t counting on getting that sort of outside help again, and have built their own efforts.

“We began setting up an unprecedented get out the vote effort in early 2011, because so much is at stake next year,” said Montana Democratic Party Chairman Ted Dick. “For months we’ve been developing a network of volunteers and getting ready to register voters across the state. Next year, our get out the vote effort will be the biggest Montana has ever seen.”

The Obama campaign noted it does have a small presence in Montana already for 2012, but wouldn’t say whether it intends to compete for the state on the scale seen in 2008.

Montana Democrats are accustomed to eking out wins even at times when national Democrats and their brand are unpopular in the state. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has been able to maintain the top job approval in the state among elected officials.

Tester has fared nearly as well, although he is likely more closely tied to less popular national Democratic policies than Schweitzer since he serves in Washington D.C.

But Tester, who looks like the farmer he is, has so far been able to differentiate himself — and remains about deadlocked with Rehberg in public polling. Even though Tester does have the advantage of incumbency, Rehberg represents the entire state with his congressional district and has been a statewide political figure for much longer than Tester.

The Tester campaign remains confident, and made it clear they will be painting the much longer-serving Rehberg, who has held several state offices, as the political insider.

“A presidential election turns more folks out to vote, and the more people who vote, the better it is for Jon. That’s because Montanans know Jon, and they want to keep a responsible, hard-working, moderate farmer in the Senate,” said Tester campaign manager Preston Elliott.

Republicans, however, believe the political wind is at their back as they try to unseat a freshman who only barely beat former Sen. Conrad Burns by a few thousand votes in 2006. The Democrats successfully portrayed Burns as a lackey of Washington D.C. interests — a strategy the GOP is now employing in an attempt to cast Tester as an ally to Obama and lobbyists.

Some in the GOP hope Obama does run a campaign in the state, believing his presence alone could hurt Tester. At the same time, the Montana Republicans won’t miss having to fight a huge influx of presidential campaign cash that the Montana GOP believes caused it to lose several down-ticket races in 2008.

“Obviously, Obama’s campaign hurt a lot of our candidates in 2008, and the absence of that operation here is going to help in 2012,” said Montana Republican Party executive director Bowen Greenwood. “But if they think that just by keeping President Obama out of the state they can save Jon Tester from his record of voting with Obama almost all of the time, they will be disappointed.”