Election 2012: The Senate race's diminishing returns

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Saturday night brought Montanans the fourth and final Senate debate between incumbent Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg. But between the first debate in Big Sky in June and this weekend’s performance, the returns for voters have gradually diminished. Beyond a fairly constructive discussion on the Affordable Care Act, most of the hour-long debate in Bozeman came back to the same talking points and heated barbs we’ve seen before. See full video below.

Rehberg and Tester at the June debate in Big Sky.

For example, Rehberg—back to the flustered, twitchy debater we saw in Billings on Oct. 8—once again kicked off his opening remarks with a jab at Tester for voting with President Obama “95 percent of the time.” It was old in Billings, and a week older in Kalispell on Oct. 14. Tester quickly refuted the claim, as he always has, by accusing Rehberg of distorting his record. Later, when given a chance to ask Tester a question on Obamacare, Rehberg prefaced his query with the comment, “We’ve already established the fact that you voted with President Obama 95 percent of the time.” Tester lashed back. “No we haven’t.” In truth, neither candidate has clean hands when it comes to distorting records. But we weren’t looking for more vague talking points and ad-style attacks. We were hoping for substance, the kind that would help the estimated two percent of undecided voters make an informed decision come Election Day.

Saturday also marked yet another tired back-and-forth on the estate tax, referred to by conservatives as the “death tax.” Tester favors extending the Bush-era tax cut exemption for couples inheriting estates worth less than $10 million; Rehberg wants to deep-six the tax completely. The discussion between the candidates didn’t, and never has, addressed the fact that, according to a study conducted by a trio of IRS researchers, only two to three percent of all deaths in the U.S. were subject to estate taxation even under the Clinton-era exemption of $1 million. In 1998, only 50,089 of the 103,892 people who filed estate tax returns actually paid any taxes. That’s the type of fact we’d like to see dropped in a debate like this.

Early on in the debate, both candidates were asked several questions about outside spending and the relentless negative advertising voters have been subjected to this cycle. Rehberg appeared to lose interest in the discussion after a few minutes, and attempted to steer the topic back toward one of his favorite talking points. “It’s not about campaign spending,” he said of the Senate race. “It’s about government spending.”

Not exactly. Campaign spending has blossomed into a major political issue in 2012, certainly one that deserves to be addressed in a race that’s seen close to $20 million in spending by third party groups. Tester, ever the opponent of Citizens United, acknowledged the problem in his closing statement. “We’re back in 1912,” he said, harkening back to the days of Montana’s Copper Kings. “We’ve come back to a time when corporations can give unlimited amounts of money, secret money, and influence the political structure of this country. And that’s scary for a democracy.”

But Rehberg, who had no response when asked directly how much outside interests had spent in this race, doesn’t seem to be too troubled by where that money is coming from. Republican strategists like Karl Rove are controlling campaign messaging through independent attack ads backed by money from billionaire Harold Simmons, Petco Petroleum Corporation CEO Jay Bergman and hedge fund founder Bruce Kovner. Whether he knows it or not, these are the folks Rehberg has repeatedly defended in saying, as he did during Saturday’s debate, “people have an opportunity and a right to be involved.”

That begs a question we’d love the candidates to answer: How many Montanans do you suspect could write a $500,000 check to Crossroads GPS or the liberal Patriot Majority USA? Unfortunately, the last debate is over, and most of what we have to go on is four debates worth of attack-ad talking points.

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