Democrat Jon Tester retained his U.S. Senate seat, warding off a strong challenge from Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg.
At about 9 a.m. Wednesday, with more than 440,000 votes tallied statewide, Tester held nearly a 4 percent lead over Rehberg, 48.6 to 44.8. Libertarian Dan Cox had received 6.5 percent of the vote. The race was still close enough that it had not been officially called in Tester’s favor when the Beacon went to print.
The race was one of the most hotly contested, closely watched and expensive in the nation, with control of the Senate possibly at stake. However, well before Montana’s results were finalized Tuesday night, Democrats had already successfully defended their Senate majority following victories in key states such as Massachusetts and Missouri.
Nearly $30 million of outside money poured into the race, in addition to the roughly $18 million spent by the campaigns themselves. Montana voters were flooded with television, radio and newspapers ads, along with phone surveys, mailers and other constant reminders of the race’s importance.
David Parker, a Montana State University political scientist who is writing a book about the race, said the campaign was unique in that it essentially featured two incumbents. While Tester was the true incumbent, Parker said Rehberg’s name recognition and six terms as Montana’s only congressman gave him qualities similar to an incumbent. The result was a race that was neck and neck from start to finish.
Rehberg’s campaign persistently tried to tie Tester to President Barack Obama, saying the Democrat voted with the president 95 percent of the time. At an Oct. 14 debate in Kalispell, Tester called the “95 percent” claim “crazy,” “inaccurate” and “misleading.”
Yet Tester, 56, still faced a challenge in separating himself from Obama, a fellow Democrat, in a state where the president is largely unpopular. Tester sought to portray himself as a moderate who is not afraid to diverge from the party line, citing his support of the Keystone XL pipeline, efforts to delist wolves and opposition to the auto and Wall Street bailouts. He was the only Senate Democrat to oppose both bailouts.
Rehberg, 57, campaigned on the promise to reduce the federal government’s reach in an effort to spur the economy. The Republican has been a vocal opponent of the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank financial reform and what he views as overly restrictive Environmental Protection Agency regulations. He touted his fiscal conservatism as chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee and repeatedly attacked Tester for his support of the federal stimulus. Tester countered that the stimulus created jobs and led to $575 million in tax breaks for Montanans.
Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, served two terms in the Montana Senate from 1999-2007, including a stint as the chamber’s president. He announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate while still serving in the Legislature and decisively won the 2006 Democratic primary before squaring off against incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. Tester edged Burns in a victory that helped give Democrats a majority in the Senate.
Rehberg, a rancher and developer from Billings, served three terms in the Montana House of Representatives from 1985-1991. He then served as lieutenant governor under Republican Stan Stephens before mounting a challenge to incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. Rehberg lost 50-45 percent, with two third-party candidates picking up the rest of the votes.
Rehberg bounced back from his Senate loss to defeat Democrat Nancy Keenan in the 2000 U.S. House race. He would go on to defend his House seat five times, winning handily each time. Rather than go for a seventh term, he decided to take another crack at the Senate and challenge Tester.
Here is a link to Tester’s acceptance speech given Wednesday morning.
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