- Feb 10, 2006
- Reaction score
- eastern Montana
A few election cycles ago, before the recession, the debt crisis and the Tea Party movement redefined American politics, a species called “the New Western Democrat” emerged in places like Montana.
Identified by their moderate politics, their plumage — typically a cowboy hat and boots — and by the ability to spit with authenticity, these centrists gave hope to Democrats nationally that a traditionally conservative corner of the country might be won over.
Now, Senator Jon Tester, a big-bellied farmer and self-described populist Democrat seeking a second term, is staking his career — and with it, perhaps his party’s control of the Senate — on a bet that the West’s middle way is still viable. Extremism, Mr. Tester said again and again in a round of campaign stops across the state last week, is a direr threat to Montana than tough times, national debt or recession.
“Working together is what built this place when the homesteaders came here,” Mr. Tester told a radio audience last week in Billings. “Working together is a Montana way of life, it’s a Montana value and we need to take that back to Washington, D.C. Start working for proactive solutions instead of trying to find excuses to vote against stuff.”
Talk like that is not aimed at Montana Democrats, who by and large seem happy with Mr. Tester, or at Republicans, who seem largely to have rallied already around his Republican challenger, Representative Denny Rehberg, but at unaffiliated and often downright alienated voters like Dixie and Jess Kibbee who define Montana’s quirky electorate and will most likely decide the 2012 election here.
Mr. Kibbee, 71, a retired schoolteacher, is leaning toward Mr. Tester, while Ms. Kibbee, 63, who sold insurance, is undecided. And she could be hard to please: she favors higher taxes on the rich, but lower corporate taxes to create jobs, and she despises most of all the vituperative tone of party politics in Washington.
“We need to stop fighting,” Ms. Kibbee said.
Many residents, in several dozen interviews across the state last week, said they personally liked Mr. Tester, 54, who reflects a certain homespun Montana type. Folksy and soft-spoken, he can support gun owners’ rights and liberal social safety nets in the same breath while emphatically gesturing with his mangled left hand, three fingers lost in an accident involving a meat grinder at age 9.
But whether Mr. Tester’s plea for moderation gets a fair hearing in the election is far from certain, political experts say. Already money is pouring into the state from outside groups, and the arguments are ugly. The first advertisements began appearing as early as March, 20 months before Election Day, some trying to show Mr. Rehberg as hostile to the environment, some painting Mr. Tester as a craven captive to President Obama, who is not particularly popular here.
Mr. Tester’s narrow defeat of the Republican incumbent, Conrad Burns, in 2006 was the linchpin that gave Democrats their Senate majority that year, and political analysts said the focus, and the stakes, would be just as high next year. A poll in March called the race a dead heat, with Mr. Tester having an edge among independents — 49 percent to 37 percent for Mr. Rehberg — but with enough undecided to swing the difference. The poll, by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for Lee Newspapers, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points for the total sample of 625 registered voters in Montana.
“It’s hard to see a scenario under which the Republicans take the Senate without taking Montana, which also means the Democrats have to defend it,” said David C. W. Parker, an assistant professor of political science at Montana State University, who is writing a book about the race.
But other factors, engrained into Montana’s political history and geography, could also push the contest more toward the middle and away from the blood-fest of extremes that marked the 2010 midterm elections, when moderates, especially among Republicans, fell under a surge of Tea Party-backed candidates.
For one thing, Mr. Rehberg, 55, has no ordinary House district, which in many places around the nation are narrowly drawn, gerrymandered pockets of liberals or conservatives that make for safe seats. In Montana, because of its sparse population, just under a million people, the Congressional district is the entire state. That means Mr. Rehberg has had to find common cause with a diverse constituency — the same voters Mr. Tester needs — in getting elected to Congress six times.
“I travel to all 56 counties continually,” Mr. Rehberg said in an interview. “And I have done a lot of listening.”
In contrast to many of the Congressional races last year, Mr. Rehberg and Mr. Tester are also both veterans of Washington, which could blunt the kind of attacks that marked the 2010 election season, where self-declared “outsiders” called on voters to throw out the incumbents.
Mr. Rehberg, a rancher and real-estate developer, has also bucked the more conservative corners of his party in recent months. He was one of only four Republicans in the House to vote against the budget plan put forward by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin in April. Mr. Rehberg said he had too many questions about the plan’s potential impact on Medicare.
He also refused in an interview to say definitively that he would never under any circumstances vote to increase federal taxes, by closing loopholes, for example.
“To get us out of this financial crisis as we have it today, I do not believe that we need a tax increase,” he said. “Tax increases should not be the first resort.”
One wild card in the race is the role that might be played by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a popular Democrat whose support in 2006 was crucial to Mr. Tester’s election.
Mr. Schweitzer, who cannot run again for governor in 2012 because of term limits, has hinted at various paths he might pursue next — and many Montanans think he might be considering a primary challenge to Senator Max Baucus, a fellow Democrat whose term expires in 2014. Mr. Schweitzer declined through a spokeswoman to comment about the Tester-Rehberg race.