If the political tea leaves are being read correctly—and there's every indication they are—this week should see two huge announcements by Montana Republicans. Denny Rehberg, Montana's lone representative to the U.S. House, is expected to say he will challenge Jon Tester in 2012 for a U.S. Senate seat. Businessman Steve Daines, who had already announced his challenge to Tester, is expected to run for Rehberg's House seat instead.
The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call broke the story earlier this week, finally putting to print rumors and rumblings circulating for months. As Roll Call reported, a "Republican operative" says Rehberg conducted polling on the race in early January and saw results he liked. Rehberg came up with 48 percent to Tester's 43 percent when matched toe to toe. Eight percent were undecided. Given the poll's margin of error, that's a statistical dead heat. The poll also showed that in a race matching Rehberg against Tester with Gov. Brian Schweitzer running as an Independent, Rehberg drew 44 percent, Tester 28 percent, and Schweitzer 18 percent, with 11 percent undecided.
"Denny has received a lot of support and encouragement to run for the United States Senate in 2012." Rehberg spokesman Brian Barrett said in a statement on Tuesday. "He is weighing all of his options carefully and will announce his decision Saturday."
Perhaps not coincidentally, both Tester and Rehberg's offices quickly showed off the sizes of their campaign coffers. Tester reported "nearly $562,000" and Rehberg weighed in at "more than $553,000." Daines, who has no announced opposition for the House seat Rehberg would vacate should he beat Tester, reports $206,500 left of the $225,000 he has raised in the last reporting period.
Already—and it should come as no surprise—the looming heavyweight bout appears to be an ugly one. Here's what Ted Dick, the Montana Democratic Party's executive director, had to say when news of Rehberg's potential challenge broke: "This is turning out to be one of the worst-kept secrets in Montana. Despite his near-fatal boat accident with a drunk driver, his frivolous lawsuit against Montana firefighters, years of deficit spending and voting against Montana, and an embarrassing record of, well, nothing, Dennis Rehberg wants a new job. He's going to have a tough two years ahead of him explaining to Montanans why he deserves it."
And Dick's counterpart in the Montana Republican Party, Bowen Greenwood, said this, as reported by Roll Call: "Sen. Tester is very highly vulnerable in 2012. It's not a matter of who our candidate is, it's a matter of his record. He voted for Obamacare and 60 percent of Montanans oppose that. He voted for the stimulus. He didn't just break his campaign promise to oppose earmarks, he trampled on it. Jon Tester has betrayed Montana, and that bill is coming due in 2012."
A slugfest seems unavoidable in this matchup. The two incumbents have both been around Montana politics for a long time. Rehberg began his political career as a legislative intern in 1977 at the age of 22. Between 1980 and 1982 he was the finance director for congressional campaigns, and by 1985 he became a member of the Montana House of Representatives. Rehberg rose quickly through the Republican ranks to become Gov. Marc Racicot's lieutenant governor in 1991. In '96 he ran an unsuccessful campaign against U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, but won Montana's lone U.S. House seat in 2000 and last November easily cruised to victory for his sixth term. The new Republican majority in the House recently appointed him chairman of the Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Sub-Committee.
Tester entered the Montana Senate in 1999. He served as minority whip in 2001, the minority leader in 2003 and became senate president in 2005. He won his U.S. Senate seat by beating incumbent Conrad Burns in a very close race in 2006. He sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Almost certain to be a focus of the campaign will be Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (FJRA) that he introduced in 2009 but failed to get out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He did, however, attach it as a rider to the Senate's omnibus spending bill, which was thought to be a "must pass" piece of legislation but was dropped by Senate leaders at the last moment.
The bill, which came to Tester as a so-called "collaborative" agreement between a few conservation groups and some timber mill owners, trades off mandated timber harvests for the designation of about 666,000 acres of new wilderness. So far, Tester has yet to reintroduced the measure into this session of Congress and, given that the Republicans now control the House, the bill will have a much rougher ride should he decide to do so.
The measure may face an equally tough ride here in Montana. A recent non-scientific poll in Helena's Independent Record found that twice as many readers oppose the reintroduction of the bill than support it, and the poll garnered more than 2,000 comments from around the country. Unfortunately for Tester, those who voted "no" included not only opponents of new wilderness, but former Tester supporters who feel the bill gives away too many acres to logging, doesn't designate enough wilderness, and removes existing protections for some wilderness study areas.
And then there's the health insurance reform measure vilified by Republicans as "Obamacare." A Florida federal judge recently ruled the entire measure as unconstitutional and a likely Supreme Court appeal is ahead. The outcome could easily become an electoral drag on Democrats nationwide.
One thing is certain, however, should Rehberg make his announcement on Saturday. This will be a brutal, 21-month, butt-ugly campaign that, from all appearances, has already started and will only go downhill from here.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.