It’s becoming something of a trend for Sen. Jon Tester. Just as on election night in 2006, Tester’s race is still too close to call.
In 2006, Tester ousted Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in one of the closest races in the country. In that contest he won by just 3,562 votes, and it took two days for Burns to concede. That Tester’s reelection bid against GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg is shaping up to be about as close has taken nobody by surprise.
It’s so close that lawyers across Big Sky Country are almost certainly preparing for the possibility of a recount. A certified tie would trigger an automatic recount, but an unsuccessful candidate may also request a recount if the margin is within one-half of 1 percent.
For Montana, along with all the other close Senate races in the country, the new adage is that politics is national. With control of the upper chamber seemingly on the line, outside groups took a strong interest in this nail-biter of a race.
In addition to the nearly $18 million raised by the candidates, outside spending approached $30 million. According to The Missoulian, Tester outraised Rehberg by about $4 million, but it was Rehberg who benefited most from outside spending, with $16.5 million to Tester’s $12.5 million spent on Rehberg’s behalf.
And what has all this money meant for residents of Montana, a state where campaign dollars can go a long way? Although polls throughout the race didn’t seem to budge, it did mean a nonstop media blitz. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, a group that tracks TV campaign ads, there were 89,000 ads relating to the race just between July and October. There have been more than 100,000 spots in total.
For Rehberg, many of those ads were spent trying to tie Tester to President Obama, whose Gallup approval rating hovered around 34 percent in the Treasure State. Montanans were constantly reminded that although Tester—with his big gut and flattop haircut—might not look like Obama, his record was a 95 percent facsimile.
Tester, for his part, sold himself as much more of an independent legislator. Sure, he supported Obama’s economic-stimulus and health care reform, but he wasn’t afraid to break from the president with his support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
In addition to tying Tester to an unpopular president, Rehberg attempted to paint his opponent as a hypocrite.
“Just look at his hypocrisy,” Rehberg said earlier this year. “When he ran for Senate, he ran on a platform of getting rid of outside influence; now he’s the No. 1 recipient in the Congress of lobbyist money.
“It’s about character,” Rehberg continued. “He said one thing and he’s doing another.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Tester pulled in almost $300,000 from lobbyists in 2011, compared with about $92,000 for Rehberg.
Tester said that if this race is about being bought by outside influence, he has the moral high ground.
“The bottom line is this: What does that influence buy?” Tester asked earlier this year. “Not a lot, because of the transparent nature of it. Because, quite frankly, everybody knows what they’ve given, they know when they meet with me because it’s on my schedule…. He cannot say the same thing.”
And in this race Tester wasn’t afraid to go after Rehberg as a man of little moral character who was willing to put his own interests ahead of fellow Montanans. Perhaps no ad summed this up more sharply than a 30-second spot that took Rehberg to task for suing the Billings Fire Department.
“When a fire broke out on his land, Rehberg sued the Ccty of Billings for damages—even though the land was undeveloped,” says Tim Bergstrom, a retired Billings firefighter. “The lawsuit was dropped because it had no merit, but not before costing us tens of thousands in legal fees, which should have been spent on libraries and police instead.”
In the end, Rehberg hopes it won’t matter that he sued a fire department, or that he had been part of a controversial boating accident involving alcohol, or whether he used taxpayer dollars to lease an SUV. He has something what no amount of money could buy Tester: an “R” next to his name on the ballot—whether that was enough remains to be seen.