In recent weeks the race has become intensely personal, with each candidate trying to prove that he is the real Montanan, while trying to discredit and disqualify the opponent.
For Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, the focus has been his biography, with frequent references to his organic wheat and barley farming on land that has been in his family for more than a century. “They know they can’t beat the farmer from Big Sandy,” he told a cheering crowd recently at the Staggering Ox restaurant in this town straddling the Missouri River.
The challenger, Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R), has been happy to talk about Tester’s Montananess, highlighting the Democrat’s big Wall Street-fueled campaign war chest and a voting record he says aligns Tester with President Obama. Rehberg’s case against the incumbent can be summed up in the sign hanging above his campaign manager’s desk: “He’s a hypocrite, stupid.”
The Montana race pits two well-known figures, both elected statewide, and has constantly been cited as one of the three contests that would decide which party controls the Senate. However, with Republican prospects flagging in other key states, Montana has become a last stand for Republicans. Their path to the majority goes through Montana, where a Tester win would make a Democratic majority almost a certainty.
That has led to a flood of advertising from outside interest groups, particularly conservatives, in a sparsely populated state where ads come cheap.
But none of that seems to have changed the fundamentals of the race. When Rehberg announced his challenge 19 months ago, the race was deadlocked. The outside spending and the pendulum swings in the presidential race have changed nothing. The most recent public poll, by Mason-Dixon, gave Rehberg a three-percentage-point lead that was inside the margin of error.
“Honestly, Tester and Rehberg have to feel like they are running a marathon on a treadmill without an iPod: 26 miles of nothing but the same,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the independent Cook Political Report.
Yet, with so much at stake, the race has not become one of the national partisan standoffs over GOP Medicare reform and Democratic demands for higher taxes on the wealthy.
Instead, the battles are being fought largely on parochial issues, from wolf hunting to who deserves credit for highway construction in a remote southeast corner of the state. The challenger devotes more time in speeches and ads to criticizing Tester’s position on the estate tax — a huge issue in a state where family farming is huge — than he does to Tester’s vote for Obama’s health-care bill. When Rehberg critiques Tester’s votes for the health-care law and the stimulus, he does so by tapping into the state’s long distrust of anything deemed “big” — whether it be big government or big business.