It's a brisk December afternoon outside the University of Montana's McGill Hall. Flanked by staff and sporting his familiar boots and flattop, Sen. Jon Tester strolls into the lobby. Student chatter spills out of a nearby classroom. Tester pauses for a moment, then enters. The Griz football team applauds.
The team is set to play Central Arkansas the next day in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. A win will advance UM to the quarterfinals. Tester reaches the front of the room and grins.
“Good to see you all without a helmet and pads on,” he says. “As you know, I’m damn glad you’re playing tomorrow.”
The game has been a hot topic for the past week. ESPN had no plans to televise the FCS games, prompting an outcry from Griz and Montana State University Bobcat fans. But a few days earlier, Tester and Sen. Max Baucus announced that their negotiations with the network were successful: Fans in Montana will be able to watch the game tomorrow over cable or satellite. The Griz and the Cats have played hard all fall, Tester says; it’s only right that Griz fans who can’t make it to Washington-Grizzly Stadium can still watch their team take the next step of the season. “Football in Montana is…well, I don’t need to tell you.”
Tester, a University of Great Falls grad and former music teacher in Big Sandy, is facing one of the most contested U.S. Senate races in the country. He defeated Republican incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006 by just 49.2 percent to 48.3 percent. Now he has to defend his seat against the state’s lone congressman, Denny Rehberg, the Republican who challenged Baucus in 1996.
Third-party groups from out of state have already launched television attacks against him. Conservatives across the country want to see him lose his seat, which would put the GOP one step closer to controlling the Senate.
Still, to paint Tester as a man against long odds would be untrue. The power of incumbency, even for a one-term senator, has been proven over the past 20 years. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, re-election rates in the Senate have hovered around 80 percent since the early 1980s. Tester has out-raised Rehberg nearly two to one and has strong third-party allies waiting in the wings. Pundits anticipate as much as $30 million in outside spending on Montana’s Senate race by election day.
But as Tester addresses the Griz, neither he nor Rehberg have run any campaign ads yet. The first debate is still half a year away. For the moment, the topic is Montana football.
“Give ’em hell,” Tester tells the team. “Kick the hell out of ’em. Send them back to Arkansas so when I get back to Washington I can give [Arkansas Sen. Mark] Pryor hell.”