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.”
It ain’t me, babe
Last September, an ad began running on Montana television denouncing Tester as the “No. 1 recipient of lobbyist money” among D.C. politicians. The spot, paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, irked the Tester campaign.
The claim about lobbyist donations to Tester is one that Rehberg also makes. Tester, 56, is the top recipient of lobbyist contributions in the Senate this election cycle, it’s true. Rehberg himself ranks seventh among members of the House. But, as PolitiFact pointed out, the attack was misleading. The rankings only consider senators up for reelection. When you account for all senators, Tester tumbles well below high-ranking figures such as Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The biggest point of contention over the NRSC ad, however, was a photo of President Obama and Tester exchanging a cozy handshake. The photo depicted Tester with 10 fingers. Anyone familiar with the senator recognized the problem: Tester only has two on his left hand, a pinkie and a thumb. He lost the other three in a meat grinder accident when he was 9 years old.
Chris Bond, a spokesman for the NRSC, waved off the Tester camp’s concerns, telling the Associated Press it was “understandable” that Tester’s campaign “would want to distract voters with a phony controversy.” Bond would later become Rehberg’s campaign manager.
Two months later, Crossroads GPS pulled an ad from Montana television that claimed Tester voted against a rule banning the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating farm dust—a rule that never actually existed. And those were merely the early days of the race. Third parties have since spent millions trying to portray Tester as an Obama clone, “cherry-picking” his voting record, Tester complains.
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Congressman Denny Rehberg, center, flanked by Sen. John McCain during a panel discussion on veterans issues in Great Falls Aug. 17.
Despite the power of incumbency, the senator has his hands full. Because the GOP only needs a handful of seats to win a majority in the Senate, a powerhouse has emerged.
Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4) corporation backed by conservative strategist Karl Rove, is spending untold dollars targeting Democratic Senate candidates in North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Montana. Crossroads is considered a social welfare organization, which means it’s allowed to participate in politics provided that’s not its primary role. Crossroads isn’t required to disclose the cost of its issue-advocacy ads or the identities of its donors.
Crossroads has dubbed its push against Democrats the “New Majority Agenda,” aimed at stopping “out-of-control” government spending. Rove has spent considerable time on Capitol Hill meeting with high-profile Republican politicians and advising them on policy. (The rules governing such interactions, as Politico put it this month, are “in their infancy.”)
According to ProPublica, Crossroads GPS and fellow conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity have now spent an estimated $60 million on television ads in the 2012 presidential race alone—more than every Super PAC in the country combined. On Aug. 23, Crossroads announced yet another anti-Tester ad buy in Montana, valued at $308,000.
‘Can we afford Jon Tester?’
Denny Rehberg seems to understand his role in this greater agenda. It’s late June and the 56-year-old, six-term congressman is sitting at a conference table in the Missoula Building Industry Association office, fielding questions on topics ranging from the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law to environmental regulations. Rehberg paints certain issues in broad strokes, but he makes one point crystal clear: The House majority the Republicans won in 2010 only gave conservatives the power to stall unsavory legislation. “We’ll pass something,” he complains, “and the Senate will kill it.” Until the Senate majority changes, Rehberg says, he doesn’t see many solutions.
- Photo courtesy of the Denny Rehberg campaign
- Rehberg on the campaign trail in Polson in early August.
“What really drove me to consider challenging Senator Tester,” Rehberg told the Indy in a prepared response, “was seeing the direction in which President Obama and the House and the Senate, which were both under Democratic control until after the 2010 election, when we took the House, were taking our country. Senator Tester was a willing participant in the President’s efforts to steer our country far to the left, a course that I, and I think most Montanans, believed to be wrong and harmful.”
Rehberg’s campaign declined to make the candidate available for this story. Instead, it provided his answers to questions via email.
After his June meeting with the MBIA, Rehberg takes the stage in the banquet hall at the Hilton Garden Inn, addressing the 2012 Montana Republican Convention. The crowd is already fired up; the previous speaker came onstage toting a deli package labeled “Tester’s baloney,” a nod to the Rehberg campaign’s second attack ad against the incumbent. As Rehberg launches into fast-paced oratory, the applause is constant.
“Can we afford Jon Tester anymore?” he asks.
“I don’t think so. Can we afford Barack Obama anymore?”
Before Rehberg can answer, the audience cuts him off with a loud “No.”
“Do we need to change the United States Congress?”
“Yes,” the audience exclaims. Wine glasses clink throughout the hall.
“Do we need to elect Denny Rehberg?”
Surrounded by his party base, the congressman can work a room to a frenzy.
During an interview in his D.C. office in late April, Jon Tester looks comparatively at ease. He wears a yellow dress shirt unbuttoned a quarter of the way down his chest and the cuff of one pants leg is tugged up over his cowboy boot.
D.C. is dysfunctional, Tester offers, “but there are nuggets of goodness that come out of this place, too.” He mentions the Vow to Hire Heroes Act that he took to the Senate floor in 2011, which broadened education and training opportunities for former servicemen and women and gave tax credits to companies that hire veterans with service-related disabilities. Tester says it’s “the only jobs bill that passed last session.”
Despite his demeanor, Tester is clearly fed up with the partisan squabbles dominating Capitol Hill. The people of Montana—of the whole country, for that matter—just want the parties to work together, he says. Their disagreements are blighting the country’s future. But, he says, “it’s that way for now, and you have to accept it for what it is... This is the field we’re on.”
The situation is particularly frustrating in light of the demands Tester has waiting for him back home. He and his wife, Sharla, work his family’s farm in Big Sandy, planting and harvesting wheat, millet, barley and organic lentils, among other crops. He flies from D.C. to Great Falls nearly every weekend, then drives 80 miles up Highway 87, past a huge yellow billboard that reads, “Elect anyone except Jon Tester and Max Baucus.” Still, that trip gives Tester one of his profound campaign strengths: He’s a Montana farmer who works the same land his grandfather homesteaded in 1912.
Returning to D.C. and the dysfunction that comes with it takes renewed motivation every week, he says. “I’m on a plane, in airports, going to them, coming from them, 18 hours a week. You do it because there’s work to be done. You do it because you want to try to make the country the best place it possibly can be for your kids and your grandkids.”
Throughout the D.C. meeting, Tester trims his nails with a clipper he keeps in his top drawer. It seems almost subconscious, as though even off the farm, his hands can’t stop moving.
Is he a real rancher?
The day after Rehberg’s speech before the GOP convention, Montana gets its first view of the Senate candidates side by side, in Big Sky. The dining hall at Buck’s T-4 Lodge is split roughly evenly between Tester and Rehberg supporters. A panel of moderators selected by the Montana Newspaper Association has trouble keeping the crowd subdued as the questions begin.
Almost immediately, the impact of negative messaging about Tester is apparent. The incumbent is asked to respond to the allegation that he’s sided with Obama “95 percent of the time.”
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Sen. Jon Tester cleans off a combine on his Big Sandy farm after the harvest this August.
Rehberg and his third-party allies may selectively represent votes from his Senate record, Tester says, but he’s disagreed with the Obama administration repeatedly: He pushed for delisting wolves in Montana, he voted against the auto industry bailout and he opposed the administration’s attempt to restrict child labor on farms. “I think ultimately what you have to look at is who represents Montana in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “If there’s good policy that comes down the pipe that helps Montana, I support it. If it’s making sure that our young people have access to education, I support it…If our elderly folks need a safety net like Social Security...and Medicare, it’s critically important we make those programs stronger in the future.”
As the debate continues, Tester appears increasingly confident. He speaks slowly and methodically. He seems engaged and knowledgeable. When his fans cheer, he politely asks them to quiet down.
Rehberg speaks more quickly. His responses are jam-packed with information and he occasionally stumbles over his own sentences while gesturing emphatically. When Rehberg says he supports the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which opened campaigns to unprecedented amounts of outside spending, he elicits a chorus of boos.
Tester’s reply is pointed. “News flash: Corporations aren’t people.”
For Tester, Citizens United has given corporations more influence in politics than the voters. The amount of secret money coming into this campaign alone corrupts the process and puts democracy at risk, he says.
“What about unions?” Rehberg interjects. He’s drowned out by cheers from the Tester camp.
The debate raises another question. Rehberg repeatedly refers to his roots as a fifth-generation Montana rancher. He and his wife, Jan, struggled through the late 1970s and 1980s to rebuild the Rehberg family’s ranch, outside Billings, he’s said, after they were forced to sell off a third of their holdings—the house, the corrals, the barn—to pay off inheritance taxes in 1974. It took them 10 years to put a house back on the land. By then, Rehberg had already entered politics as a representative in the state legislature. Rehberg gave up ranching in 2001, citing difficulty balancing duties at home with his responsibilities as Montana’s congressman. Now he’s largely in the real estate business, subdividing and developing the family spread under the name Rehberg Ranch.
- Photo courtesy of the Denny Rehberg campaign
- Rehberg in Polson. During the campaign, Rehberg has defended his identity as a rancher. “I live on a ranch,” he told the Indy. “It’s my home and it always will be.”
“I live on a ranch, it’s my home and it always will be,” Rehberg told the Indy in a prepared response. He said he’s owned cattle off and on and that he’s had pasture agreements with other livestock owners. However, he said, “Representing Montana and ranching are both full-time jobs, and anyone who tells you they can do both of those jobs at the same time simply isn’t being honest.”
Near the end of the debate in Big Sky, the Tester campaign sends out an email saying that according to the Montana Department of Livestock, “neither Dennis Rehberg nor Rehberg Ranch LLC has sold or inspected any sort of livestock for at least 12 years.”
In his closing remarks, Tester fires another salvo in the who’s-the-real-Montanan battle: “Building houses and mansion ranching,” he declares, “ain’t real ranching.”
Down on the farm
Jon Tester’s baritone rings out across the farm yard in Big Sandy. Two dogs linger in the shade. It’s near 9:30 in the morning and already waves of heat shimmer over the horizon, all but blocking the view of the Bear Paw Mountains to the east. Sharla emerges from the garage.
“Can you hop in and raise this combine head?”
Sweat pours down the senator’s face as he tinkers with the hulking machine, working to replace a metal tooth. Gone is his trademark grin. His shirt—an old dress shirt whose D.C. life is clearly over—is covered in grime. His hands are callused and filthy. His flattop is hidden under a well-used baseball cap. He’s not very chatty; all of his attention is focused on getting the combine cleaned up and put away.
- Photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Tester says the lessons he's learned as a Montana farmer have proven invaluable in D.C. "It's about making things work, it's about sacrifice, it's about doing what you need to do to survive."
He and Sharla are the only ones who tend this farm full time, though they get the occasional helping hand from their son, Shon, and daughter, Christine. A nasty hail storm hit just before the harvest this year, so it hasn’t been the best few weeks for the Testers in northcentral Montana.
Looking toward the Bear Paws, it’s easy to forget the view of the D.C. skyline from Tester’s office on Constitution Avenue. Congress is in recess for several week, affording Tester time to square things away at home. But even in the familiar presence of the relentless Montana sun, he’s still frustrated. The House and Senate took a break without passing a five-year farm bill that producers in Montana and across the nation are anxiously awaiting. A terrible drought is plaguing large swaths of the country. The current farm bill expires in September.
The issue touches not only on a widening gap between generally conservative farmers and Republican politicians opposed to farm subsidies, but the differing reactions from Montana’s senate candidates. The Senate passed a five-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill in late June that replaces subsidies with crop insurance and revenue compensations and covers losses due to bad weather. Tester trumpeted the accomplishment—until the House stopped the bill in its tracks. Republicans hoped to make deeper cuts in funding for food stamps and nutrition programs, which are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rehberg decried the fact that those allocations outweighed support for family farms and urged House leaders to remain in session through early August and “move this process forward in a timely manner.” Instead, the House passed a one-year agricultural disaster relief program that excluded farmers, and Rehberg voted for the bill.
Around noon, Tester sits at his dining room table and has a glass of Sharla’s lemonade. The television in the kitchen is on, showing the Olympics. Asked when he began preparing for a re-election bid, Tester says he probably didn’t start as early as he should have. “I really focused my work on what we had to do in the Senate, and kinda decided to run about three years ago when Sharla and I sat down and said, ‘Should we do this again or not?’” The call was his in 2006, he says. This time around, it was Sharla’s.
Speculation about a Rehberg Senate bid in 2012 began at least four years ago. But the congressman’s decision came as something of a surprise to Tester, he says; he had no solid idea of Rehberg’s intention until February 2011, when Rehberg filed.
Tester used to have lunch with Rehberg and Baucus about once a month to discuss issues facing Montana, the senator says. That came to an abrupt end last year. “I think he planned on running the minute I got elected,” Tester says now.
The interview turns to outside spending and the attempts by Rehberg and third parties to, as Tester puts it, “make me into something I’m not.” He seems frustrated by the talk of his strong policy ties to the Obama administration. But he hasn’t tried to distance himself from Obama in response to the ads, he says.
“I don’t need to go down the list...wolves, farm dust, whatever.” He made those decisions, he says, “not because it’s different than President Obama’s purview, but because it was the right thing for Montana.”
A U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad comes on the TV, as if on cue. The organization has attacked Tester for repeatedly “siding with Washington.” This ad encourages voters to “reject Jon Tester.”
This race hasn’t been entirely discouraging for Tester. His interactions with Montanans have been positive, he says. One woman called to thank him for his vote on healthcare reform, he recalls. During a trip up to Milk River, Alberta, for farm supplies he can’t get closer to Big Sandy, he bumped into a man in the grocery store who wished him luck in the election. And when he was in the airport recently, he says, “I walked by the Billings gate, looked over to check and see if I knew anybody there. About two gates past, and I feel this guy has his hand on my shoulder. I turn around and he goes, ‘I was at the Billings gate and just wanted to tell you you’re doing a great job.’”
Tester also has his allies among third parties. And he’s run his own attack ads against Rehberg. Of the $3 million in independent expenditures reported to the Federal Election Commission in Montana’s Senate race so far, $674,474 has been spent in his favor, by groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and NARAL Pro-Choice America. An additional $2.1 million has directly opposed Rehberg. He loathes secret outside money in politics, he says, but Democrats have to stay competitive. “Because of the field we’re on, you have to be able to get ads up that match. Otherwise you just get rolled over.”
Another anti-Tester ad pops up on the TV. This time it’s the latest Crossroads GPS spot. The group continues to mask its Tester attacks from the FEC under the guise of issue advocacy. But, at least from Tester’s point of view, this is no issue ad. It’s an attempt to unseat him not because Crossroads necessarily supports Rehberg’s politics but because backers such as Karl Rove want to see a Republican majority in the Senate.
That same week, Rove tours the Flathead Valley, and so does Rehberg.
“If I had Karl Rove out picking rock in my field or picking hay bales for half a day and he still put those goddamn ads up, I’d say okay,” Tester says. “I’d love to get that son of a bitch out in the field.”