HELENA – Before the dusted even settled on Tuesday’s crowded primary nominations, simmering general election battles began to heat up.
The U.S. Senate election contest between incumbent Democrat Jon Tester and Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg hardly needed any more fuel added to the fire. But wrapping up the primaries sharpened the rhetoric and formally opened up debate season.
Before election officials had even finished counting ballots Tuesday, Rehberg challenged Tester to debate June 16 in Big Sky — that is in addition to a debate scheduled the following weekend in Whitefish. The debates will be the first face-to-face matchup for the pair — and the sparks could fly.
In accepting the debate, Tester established some themes that no doubt will be coming up again — and asked for a commitment to six more debates this fall.
“Montanans have very serious concerns about the Congressman’s support for the Patriot Act, REAL ID, and his record of giving special tax loopholes to millionaires — while voting against Montana seniors, veterans and education,” Tester said.
The Rehberg campaign responded by promising the debates would display “Tester’s hypocrisy and 95 percent support for President Obama’s unpopular, liberal policies.”
Many voters have already made a decision in the race, leaving both sides to spend millions in a slugfest over a fairly small slice of undecided voters. Tester has held the fundraising advantage, but fears that Rehberg will get more aid from national GOP groups airing third-party attack ads.
“The polls and pundits all agree that Montana is going to be one of the closest races this year — and I don’t need to tell you which category we want to fall in,” Tester wrote in a fundraising letter Friday to supporters as he prepared to address faithful at the party’s weekend nominating convention.
One of those outside groups, The Crossroads GOPS connected to Karl Rove, announced an ad right after the primary that aims to connect Tester to “out-of-control spending in Washington.”
And each side pointed to primary results that indicated a weakness in the opponent.
Democrats noted that Rehberg lost 24 percent of the vote to a complete unknown — a potential sign of protest from unhappy conservatives who may not be motivated to vote for him in November.
And Republicans quickly pointed out that Rehberg, even with a primary opponent, collected more votes on Tuesday than Tester did in an uncontested election — a potential sign there are far more Republicans engaged and energized this year.
The governor’s race will likely get the next most attention in Montana. So far the rhetoric is not as heated.
Attorney General Steve Bullock easily received the Democratic nomination, as expected. But former congressman Rick Hill was forced to tap into campaign coffers and fend off attacks in order to emerge from a contentious, seven-way GOP primary.
Hill recently reported in campaign finance filings that he holds about a third of Bullock’s roughly $600,000.
Right after Tuesday’s primary, Bullock asked for seven debates. The Hill campaign said both sides are negotiating the details.
Bullock, seeking to replace popular Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer who can’t run again due to term limits, established a campaign theme in a Thursday letter to supporters.
“While we’ll be offering a balanced approach: helping small businesses create jobs and improving education, the other side will want to turn their back on progress, Bullock said in a Thursday note to supporters.
Hill, on election night, made it clear he will be using the familiar GOP tactic of labeling the Democrat as too liberal for Montana.
“I think there is a clearly contrast here. He is the candidate of trial lawyers and environmentalists. We are going to represent everyone else,” Hill said in an interview after winning late Tuesday night.
Bozeman businessman Steve Daines coasted to the congressional nomination as he hopes to replace Rehberg. Democrats picked state Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings to challenge him.
Daines promised a positive campaign about issues, and so far has stuck with it. Gillan, who is running on a promise to provide pragmatic bipartisan solutions, has so far tempered criticisms as well.
Republican voters, like in 2008, nominated Helena attorney Tim Fox for attorney general. Fox feels confident that with political tides now turned toward the GOP he fares a better chance of winning. Fox has been making a big issue of using the office to push back against unpopular federal programs.
Democrats, in a tight choice, nominated state attorney Pam Bucy who has been touting her experience as a prosecutor with a promise to be tough on those who prey on children.
Republican primary voters turned to an old hand in the primary for secretary of state. Brad Johnson, who lost a re-election bid in 2008 for that post, rode his familiar name to a win. It came just two years after GOP voters rejected him in a 2010 primary for public service commission that fell shortly after he was arrested for drunken driving.
He faces current Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who will certainly tout the efficiency improvements she has made in the office, the advancements in absentee voting and smoother statewide ballot counting.
The many other races in Montana will have to battle for attention with so much money and focus on the top battles.
Incumbent State Auditor Monica Lindeen, who has touted the agency’s help given consumers scammed in bad investment deals — including assistance given Hill, the Republican candidate for governor who got caught in a bad real estate deal with many others.
Lindeen is being challenged by freshman state Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell who served as a spokesman in 2011 for many tea party-enthused attempts to change policy.
And current Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who has focused on improving graduation rates while in office faces Republican challenger Sandy Welch, a former high school math teach and administrator from Martin City.
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