‘Two Very Different Paths’

first_img Email At the risk of overstating a single race’s importance, an argument could be made that the outcome of Montana’s heated U.S. Senate contest between Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg will impact the entire country’s political agenda and direction for years to come. There are a number of factors, of course, that would need to coalesce to solidify that narrative, including first and foremost the results of other national races. But at the very least, it’s safe to say the outcome will play a pivotal role in dictating Montana’s political agenda and direction for years to come. And it’s safe to say that both men represent very different agendas.Tester, a burly seven-fingered farmer from Big Sandy, is carrying the weight of the Democratic Party’s political aspirations on his broad shoulders, while Rehberg, a mustached rancher and developer from Billings, carries similar expectations for his own Republican Party. Control of the Senate is potentially at stake. In a democracy driven by the actions of two legislative bodies – the Senate and House – securing a majority in either goes a long way toward establishing the law of the land. Democrats currently cling to a small majority in the Senate, while Republicans have a more comfortable advantage in the House. Democrats’ hopes of maintaining their Senate majority rest on the backs of only a handful of incumbents, including Tester, who is seeking a second term. Tester defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006 to help give Democrats a Senate majority. Now Republicans are trying to take the Senate back, and Rehberg, a six-term congressman, is a key piece to that puzzle.That’s why the election is one of the most closely watched in the nation and why there are millions of advertising dollars flooding into a rural state, funding a seemingly endless procession of attack ads. All of it may be a bit overwhelming for some Montanans unaccustomed to such big money infiltrating their politics, yet it is a constant and clear reminder of the race’s far-reaching implications. David Parker, a Montana State University political science professor who is writing a book on the race, says the Tester-Rehberg contest has few comparisons in Montana’s recent political history, in terms of “margin of victory, intensity, national attention and resources spent.” “I would put this race almost in a class all by itself,” Parker said, comparing it to past Montana elections. “The primary reason is essentially you have two incumbents. Rehberg is not a regular congressman. He’s the only congressman representing the whole state.”The battle has hinged around Rehberg’s efforts to portray his opponent as essentially a clone of President Barack Obama, while Tester deflects that by striking a populist tone and trying to position himself as the true moderate independent in the race. At a recent debate in Kalispell, Rehberg repeated his campaign’s mantra that Tester has voted with Obama “95 percent” of the time, which Tester said was “crazy,” “inaccurate” and “misleading.” The Democrat cites a list of issues on which he has diverged from the party line, including his support of the Keystone XL pipeline and delisting wolves.Rehberg’s argument will remain omnipresent throughout the campaign season, as he will try to drive home the message that he represents reduced government, job creation and the antithesis to Obama, who is largely unpopular in Montana. And Tester is tasked with separating himself from the president, who will appear on the same ballot with the same “Democrat” written next to his name.Rehberg has criticized Tester’s support of the Affordable Care Act, “failed” stimulus bill and other policies he considers representative of governmental overreach. He says economic recovery is being stunted by burdensome regulations from the policies of Obama – and the policies of Tester.“We do have two paths,” Rehberg told a crowd at Kalispell’s Oct. 14 debate at Flathead Valley Community College. “One is the government solution and government path and the other is mine.”Tester counters that his votes have been for the good of Montanans. He says the uninsured and those with preexisting conditions are now better protected under the Affordable Care Act, and the stimulus helped in a number of ways, including jobs, improved infrastructure and $575 million in tax breaks for Montanans. In both cases, Tester says something had to be done to make a bad situation more manageable.The senator says Rehberg represents the fringe on the far right, out of touch with majority of Montanans’ values. At the debate, Tester defended his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which seeks to create both wilderness and logging jobs. Rehberg opposes the act because he says it only guarantees more wilderness and not jobs, and admonished Tester for trying to “fool the public.” Tester says most Montanans support the legislation, just not those on the far left and far right. “The congressman is part of that extreme agenda,” Tester said.Tester has attacked Rehberg, who is the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, for his budgeting priorities, saying the congressman favors “tax breaks for the wealthiest of the wealthiest.” The senator is critical of Rehberg for trying to eliminate Title X family planning funding three times over the past year.Rehberg counters that he’s had to make difficult decisions in the face of massive national debt and a wounded economy. Regarding family planning, he said he “made the determination that Medicaid has expanded to the point that it could take care of those most in need.” The congressman says Republican leadership approached him about overseeing the “toughest budget” and he has taken on the challenge with the budgetary approach of controlling spending without raising taxes.“I have to set priorities and I stand by those priorities,” Rehberg said.But for all the positioning, jostling and spending, polls remain mostly unfazed. The Associated Press reported that the two campaigns have raised more than $18 million in two years and spent more than $15 million of it. On top of that, third-party groups have spent millions more. And yet, nobody seems to be gaining the upper hand from all of the spending, with polls consistently showing only a few percentage points separating the two candidates, typically with a slight edge for Rehberg. Libertarian Dan Cox, the third candidate in the race, has been polling in the 6 to 8 percent range. Cox’s impact is a wild card, with the assumption that most of the votes he receives are potential lost votes for Rehberg.“Despite those millions and millions and millions of dollars that have been spent in the campaign, the needle just doesn’t move,” Craig Wilson, a professor of political science at MSU-Billings, said, adding that the race is “too close to call.”Now the race hits its final stretch run. One more debate is scheduled on Oct. 20 in Bozeman. Early voting has already begun. As Wilson said, the race is too close to call. But even if the negative advertising gets exhausting and the political news cycle gets tedious, it is all a byproduct of a serious race with serious consequences. That is true on a national scale in terms of securing a legislative majority, but Parker reminds that most importantly it is true for Montana. Voters are deciding on the man who will be their voice in Washington D.C. – to advocate on their behalf and for policies that will impact their daily lives back in Montana.“It’s two very different paths forward that could lead to two different Montanas,” Parker said. “At the end of the day, this election is vitally important.” Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.last_img read more