Montana Senate Battle Hinges on Small Number of Undecideds

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Dale Specht of Great Falls is a retired school janitor who goes to the same barber as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, but also appreciates the assistance U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg once offered him on a veteran’s issue.

And he could be just about the most valuable voter in Montana: one of the few remaining undecideds who is paying attention and plans to vote.

Rehberg, the Republican challenger, and Tester are engaged in a multimillion-dollar food fight for a Senate seat prized by both parties seeking control of the chamber. Voters know both candidates well, and in a state with less than a million people, many have even engaged personally with the candidates.

Both sides, and their out-of-state allies, have been trying to break a near deadlock in the race by relentlessly hammering those voters with a deluge of attacks.

But Specht, the undecided retiree from Great Falls, isn’t buying any of it.

“They are fighting among each other about stuff that’s trivial,” Specht said. “They are twisting stuff around, and I don’t care for that.”

Specht says Tester is “still down to Earth and hasn’t lost his roots,” an important asset for the first-term Democrat getting attacked for supporting Obama administration policies. But Specht is very suspicious of the federal health care law he believes was written “by someone back East sitting in a cubicle making up rules for everyone else.”

Rehberg over the years has held a lot of wide-open town halls in the state, and it was at one of those in Great Falls a few years back where the Republican impressed Specht by helping him in his attempt to qualify for VA benefits. But Specht is a union man in a union town, and suspects that Rehberg supports anti-union “right-to-work” legislation.

“In Montana, I know where Rep. Rehberg stands at, and I know where Sen. Tester stands at. And I am just trying to figure out who is going to do the best job for our state of Montana,” Specht said.

It’s not easy to find an undecided voter in the Senate race — the Associated Press called 47 voters before finding the first one yet to make a final decision in the state’s highest-profile. And the campaigns are ramping up their outreach to find these voters.

It is expensive, difficult and time-consuming to convince voters like Specht, said Montana State University Political Scientist David Parker. He said as few as 5 percent are undecided, although most of those are voters who aren’t engaged and may not vote.

It will take personal contact by the campaigns to identify those who will vote, and long phone conversations to identify the specific issues important to that voter. Then, the campaigns will follow-up repeatedly with targeted information. Often, Parker said, the voters have a couple of issues important to them like Specht that can split party lines.

“Undecided voters are tricky to get ahold of, tricky to convince and tricky to get to show up to vote. They are also fickle,” Parker said. “They can sway one way or another depending on the whim of the moment.”

It is expensive business, and probably more important to Tester if he is going to win because his base is slightly smaller than Rehberg’s, the political scientist said. He estimates both sides will spend up to $40 million in the state.

But attracting that base is no sure thing, either, in a place like Montana that is famous for its ticket-splitting votes. Democrats swept state offices in 2008 at a time when John McCain topped Barrack Obama in Montana. For years, the state sent one Republican and one Democrat to the U.S. Senate.

And sometimes they can split the ticket in unpredictable ways.

Tom Spatafore of Great Falls plans to vote for Rehberg because he believes the Republican will do the most for the state, although he thinks Tester has done a “bang up” job in his first term.

But the self-described Republican says he doesn’t trust Romney, and will vote for Obama at the top of the ticket. Spatafore also said he will even vote for a Democrat for governor because Attorney General Steve Bullock seems like “a more honest guy” than former congressman Rick Hill.

“Basically I vote for the man and not the party,” Spatafore said.

The Rehberg campaign is confident the independent voters will break their way, saying their research shows most undecideds don’t like Obama administration policies. The campaign’s message is simple, unwavering and almost cliche it is so often repeated.

“They know they don’t like President Obama’s policies, and we feel confident that once they learn that Tester votes with Obama 95 percent of the time we will end up getting the majority of those undecided voters,” said campaign manager Erik Iverson.

The Tester campaign, backed by a large coordinated campaign to call voters individually, believes the Big Sandy farmer’s down-home appeal will swing the independents. Campaign manager Preston Elliott said it will also take neighbors talking to their neighbors door-to-door about Tester to cut through the negative impressions from a “huge media war.”

“I think that once you talk about who Jon is, and talk about him putting Montana’s agenda first like he has, I think they break our way,” Elliott said.

Specht, who vows to support whichever third-party presidential candidate is on the ballot rather than align with either Romney or Tester, said he doesn’t know how he will make a choice in the Senate race. He would like to see more substantive action helping out working people, but doubts the Senate race brouhaha will lead to results.

“The older I am getting the madder I am getting,” Specht said. “They need to be concerned about the people themselves. This economy is just absolutely terribly. Everyone is trying to make a go of it, and they are just getting slapped in the face and pushed in the dirt.”

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