Sunday, August 19, 2012

Montana U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Montana U.S. Senate

August 19, 2012
79 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2008 Presidential Result: Red State (West)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

In 2006, much attention was placed on Montana when a Democrat defeated a narrowly defeated a scandal plagued, gaffe prone GOP incumbent to win a Senate and become one of the states that provided the turnover victory that allowed the party to take over the Senate. Six years later, many eyes will again be on Big Sky Country as Republicans feel they can take the seat back and perhaps have that be the turnover victory to give them back the Senate.

The race between freshman Democrat Jon Tester, and his GOP opponent Congressman Denny Rehberg will be expensive and tightly contested. The polls have mostly been close (save one from the spring which had Tester down by 10 points) throughout and will likely remain so, but in a state where it is likely to be politically harmful to be tied too closely to Barack Obama and his reelection campaign, Republicans could be able to take advantage.

In 2006, Tester was President of the Montana State Senate, but was not considered the favorite to win the nomination when he launched his first Senate campaign. However, the populist Tester, who had a background in farming, became the darling of "netroots" activists and liberal blogs such as the Daily Kos, which made the election of Tester one of their top priorities in 2006. They liked his back story, liberal positioning on many issues, and the hope that "progressives" could win red states. With their strong financial support, Tester went on to win his party's primary and then defeated incumbent Republican Conrad Burns, narrowly, after the controversial Senator suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds.

During his time as a Senator, Tester has cast some votes, mindful of the more conservative and libertarian leaning folks at home that have disappointed Kos and other leftists, who have openly expressed disappointment with him and the effort spent to elect him and the hope they had invested in him. Still, smart liberals have to realize how important it is for Democrats to keep the seat.

There was never much suspense about who Republicans would put up to oppose Tester once Congressman Rehberg announced his candidacy. A former rancher, Rehberg had faced the voters of the entire state every year since first getting elected to Congress in 2000. Previously, during his time as the state's Lt. Governor, Rehberg had been his party's nominee for the Senate in 1996, and came closer than first expected in losing a very close race to Montana's senior Senator Max Baucus. The Republican's political record of statewide victories though for his House seat make him quite a known quantity to the state's voters.

The general election fight will come down to contrasts in personality and ideology. Tester is trying to show that he is "more Montana" than Rehberg, who has been serving in Washington D.C. longer. The burly, crew-cut hair Tester was able to win in 2006 because people liked him more personally than his opponent and might have been willing to overlook some liberal positions of his. With a voting record in the Senate now, which includes typically siding with the Obama Administration, he may have a harder time getting voters to look past ideology and may have to really go negative against Rehberg. A political firestorm over the airwaves erupted earlier this summer as Tester ran an ad accusing his opponent of cutting funding for cancer screenings. Rehberg fired back with newspaper claims stating that Tester's accusation was untrue and ran a response ad featuring his mother, a cancer survivor.

Of course, like Tester, Rehberg will also have to be responsible for defending his Congressional voting record as well as perhaps a 2009 incident in which he was injured as a passenger in a drunk boating accident, which also seriously injured two of Rehberg's young aides. While Rehberg tries to portray himself as a true Montana rancher, his opponents will try to focus on his hefty net worth.

For the rest of the campaign, Montana is likely to be blanketed with attack ads by the candidates, the parties, and special interests from around the country. Being an incumbent has its advantages for Tester, but running in a Presidential election year with a drag at the top of the ticket is probably going to negate that against a strong GOP opponent.

The incumbent Democrat is a smart and effective politician, and should not be counted out, but it is not the anti-GOP year of 2006 anymore and he no longer has Conrad Burns to run against. I would not be terribly surprised if the race moved heavily towards Rehberg in the final few days, but for now, it is fair to expect a very close race. National politics though are more likely to tip the scales in favor of the Republican candidate.

Rehberg campaign link:

2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 9 D, 6 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 39 D, 43 R