Tight Race in Montana
Can Republican Denny Rehberg take Democrat Jon Tester’s Senate seat?


Betsy Woodruff

It might be the closest Senate race in the nation, but Republicans should feel heartened by the current state of the contest in Montana. Congressman Denny Rehberg seems to have a real shot at taking the seat of Democrat Jon Tester. And the behavior of Tester and his allies seems to indicate they’re pretty worried. Their last best hope, the release of documents on a 2009 boating accident in which Rehberg was injured, proved to be a non-story. And Tester supporters appear to have been paying for ads for the Libertarian candidate, which also seems to have backfired.

The Fairfield (Montana) Sun Times reported last week that an environmental group working to reelect the incumbent spent $500,000 on a TV ad urging voters to support the Libertarian candidate, Dan Cox, because he was “The Real Conservative.” And The Hill reports that the Montana Republican party has filed a complaint with the FEC about recent mailings for Cox paid for by the same PAC, the Montana Hunters and Anglers Leadership Fund. The state GOP holds that the PAC failed to properly identify itself. It is supported by the left-leaning League of Conservation Voters, which has ties to Tester and to Senator Max Baucus.

Cox is currently polling at about 1 percent, according to Rehberg’s press secretary, Chris Bond, and the race is close enough that his candidacy could change its outcome. However, it doesn’t seem to be going that way. “We’re not seeing any movement in our internals towards the Libertarian,” he tells National Review Online. “In fact, what we’re seeing both anecdotally and in our tracking is that it’s backfiring on them — that the more people look into this, the more upset they are.”

The Cox maneuver is an indicator of increased desperation in the Tester camp. Real Clear Politics currently puts Rehberg and Tester in a tie, making it the closest Senate race in the nation at press time. But Republicans who spoke with NRO are optimistic about their chance to turn a blue seat red. “It’s going to be so close,” says Will Deschamps, the Montana GOP chairman. And that itself is good news for Rehberg’s camp, since Montanans who wind up voting Republican tend to poll as undecided until very close to Election Day.

Tester’s campaign apparently thought it had an October Surprise in the report on the boating accident. But the only news was that there was no news. In short, Rehberg was on a boat in 2009 with state representative Greg Barkus and three others. The party had been drinking at a local restaurant, and Barkus, who was at the wheel, ran the boat aground. Rehberg was badly injured, and one of his staffers was in a coma, as The Hill recounts. Tester has tried to suggest that the accident impugns Rehberg’s leadership abilities, and his camp and allies had pushed for the release of more documents concerning the crash. Instead of providing lurid and damning details, however, the report just reinforced what was already clear — that Tester’s version of the story was little more than “pretty vicious personal attacks,” as Bond puts it.

Desperate measures for desperate times. Tester’s concern is understandable — there’s a chance that the same talking points that put him where he is now will help push him out. He defeated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in 2006, a banner year for Democrats. He branded himself as an independent voice who would resist the corrupting influences of partisanship and lobbyists. That helped make him a competitive candidate for Montanans, who typically vote for the Republican presidential candidate but often choose a Democrat for governor or senator. But Tester has failed to maintain the spotless image of a principled outsider uncorrupted by maneuverings inside the Beltway. reports that Tester is the top recipient of lobbyist cash in the Senate this election cycle. And according to Congressional Quarterly, he has voted with President Obama 95 percent of the time — a fact often repeated by the Rehberg campaign.

In the final days of the race, Rehberg has been focusing on maximizing turnout in Republican-leaning counties. Bond says Rehberg’s camp expects many undecided voters to go for him. “In a lot of cases, people make up their minds when they walk into the voting booth,” Deschamps says.

And he thinks enough of those voters will side with Rehberg. “Politics is a blood sport,” he adds. “It’s just that way.”

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.