Senator Jon Tester’s supporters like to talk about the freshman Democrat’s penchant for riding his tractor at the farm 10 miles west of Big Sandy, Montana, that has been in his family for three generations.
The portrait of a lawmaker who sports a flattop haircut -- cost: $10 -- distracts from Tester’s support of President Barack Obama’s major legislative initiatives, including the 2010 health-care law and the 2009 economic stimulus. It’s a tactic meant to undercut an advertising blitz by Tester’s opponent, U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg, and Republican groups painting the incumbent as in lockstep with Obama, who’s unpopular in this Republican-leaning state.
“People know better than that,” Tester said in an interview in Billings, Montana, after an Oct. 18 get-out-the-vote rally. “I’m the guy who takes a flight home every weekend, and we go around the state, and we get ideas, and then we take them back to Washington, D.C.”
Tester is counting on his personal likability to help overcome the political disadvantages that have led Republicans to consider the race among their best opportunities for gaining one of four seats they need to assure a Senate majority in the 113th Congress. Most analysts say it’ll be difficult for Republicans to win control of the Senate, elevating the importance of the Montana contest in the Nov. 6 election.
Tester has stayed neck-and-neck with Rehberg in polls, as the campaigns have fought to define his image as either an independent, likable farmer or a loyal Obama foot soldier.
“The fundamental question remains the same: Can Jon Tester over-perform President Obama enough to win? That’s been the question for the last two years,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Washington-based nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “This race is remarkable in its lack of movement.”
At an Oct. 20 debate in Bozeman, Rehberg made a point of linking Obama to Tester.
“Montana has two paths that it can take and has been taking one path, which has been the Obama-Tester path,” Rehberg said. He criticized Tester as a reliable vote for Obama’s “job-killing” agenda.
Analysts say undecided voters are few in Montana. At this point, the two candidates are “fighting over a universe” of about 20,000 swing voters, Gonzales said, adding “it’s going to be a tossup through Election Day.”
How much support Libertarian candidate Dan Cox draws is one factor that could affect the race’s outcome.
The contest is unfolding in Big Sky country, in a state with fewer people per square mile than any except Alaska and Wyoming. Residents say personal relationships count here in politics, as do ties to the state, where ski resorts and hiking trails are drawing transplants from places like Los Angeles to such towns as Bozeman, prompting some locals to derisively refer to it “Boze-angeles.”
Six years ago, as part of a wave that led to Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Tester defeated three-term Republican Senator Conrad Burns by 3,562 votes, less than 1 percent of the total cast. Successful statewide Democratic candidates in Montana typically must win about one in five voters who self-identify as Republicans.
In 2006, Libertarian candidate Stan Jones won almost 3 percent of the vote -- significantly more than the margin by which the race was decided. Libertarian candidates typically cut into Republican contenders’ support.
Closest in U.S.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said the Montana contest could be the closest in the U.S. on Nov. 6, though Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney probably will easily carry the state. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win in Montana was Bill Clinton in 1992.
“It’s a ticket-splitting state in a lot of ways,” Duffy said, noting that Montanans have two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor.
Both parties have blanketed the state with millions of dollars in advertising, much of it negative. Through Oct. 15, Rehberg and Republican-aligned groups spent $5.2 million on 50,390 advertising spots, compared with $5.3 million spent by Tester and Democratic groups on 46,136 spots, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
More ads -- 96,526 spots -- have run for the Montana contest than in any other Senate race this year, and the number is almost twice as many as in Ohio, the second-ranking state in terms of total spots, according to CMAG.
Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group that former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove helped create, has aired the most spots of any outside group: 9,579 at a cost of $1.2 million. The group started running an ad Oct. 17 that shows Tester with his arm around Obama and claims that “Barack Obama and Jon Tester dug a hole” with the 2009 stimulus bill, the 2010 health care law and a 2011 measure raising the federal debt ceiling. It says: “They want Montanans to pay the price.”
“That message is so wrong, and it’s so off base, and it’s so much of a mischaracterization of who I am,” Tester said. “I could say it was a flat-out lie -- but I won’t say that.”
Tester, 56, mentions that he has broken with the Obama administration in his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, his opposition to the auto bailout and his efforts to remove Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves that Montana ranchers claim are preying on livestock.
Effect on Vote
Jerry Rukavina, a Great Falls resident and retired teacher who now works as a field consultant for the statewide teachers’ union, said he doesn’t think the ads tying Tester to Obama will have much effect on how people vote.
“I’m sure there are a few people whose minds have been changed, but, for the most part, people know where that money came from, they know it’s not what Jon is and they disregard it,” Rukavina said at a dinner honoring the state’s “teacher of the year” Oct. 18 in Billings. Tester shook hands with attendees.
Jim Sivigny, an anesthesia technician, said he would vote for Rehberg in part because he’s concerned that the health-care law will lead to staff cutbacks at St. Vincent’s hospital in Billings, where he works.
“I’m not really impressed with the health-care act,” Sivigny said. “I think that might actually put me out of a job.”
Montana’s unemployment rate was 6.1 percent in September, lower than the national rate of 7.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Rehberg, who’s forgoing re-election to his U.S. House seat to seek the Senate post, unveiled an ad last week claiming that Tester’s support for the Obama administration’s 2011 air-quality regulation contributed to Montana PPL’s decision to close in 2015 a coal-fired power plant in Billings. Tester in an interview said the company was using federal air-quality rules as an excuse to cut costs.
Tester’s campaign and Democratic groups have countered with ads attacking Rehberg, 57, claiming he would turn Medicare into a voucher system and that he has supported cuts to education, including Pell grants for college students.
Overhauling Medicare, the federal health-care program for senior citizens, was one of the topics Tester and Rehberg sparred over at the debate in Bozeman, which was televised statewide and attended by about 100 people.
With supporters for both candidates told not to applaud during the debate, Tester’s backers paid homage to him by holding their fists in the air and extending their pinky finger and thumb. As a boy, Tester lost the three middle fingers on his left hand in a meat-grinder accident.
Asked for an example of where Obama has failed Montana, Tester cited the administration’s Race to the Top schools initiative, which he said “is not a very good policy for education for Montana.”
Rehberg cast his candidacy in terms of its national repercussions. “Montanans have an opportunity to be involved” in changing the majority in the Senate, he said.
As of Sept. 30, Rehberg had a cash advantage: $1.9 million, compared with $1.3 million for Tester, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
As Tester has nurtured his public image, he has been trying to impugn Rehberg’s. Tester’s campaign has called on Rehberg to provide more details about his involvement in a 2009 boat crash that left a Rehberg staffer in a coma. Local prosecutors contended that the boat’s driver, a former state senator who pleaded no contest to criminal endangerment, had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.
Jake Hewuse, a Belgrade, Montana, resident who attended the debate, said he would vote for Rehberg because “the cut-and-dry of it for me” is that Rehberg supports “much smaller government and power to the states, not the federal government.”
Sheryl Swanson, a Billings resident who signed up to volunteer for Tester’s campaign late in the contest, said she supports him in part because “he comes home, and he gets on a tractor.”
She added, “How good is that?”