BILLINGS – Last night, Oct. 7, was the second of four debates for the Montana candidates for U.S. Senate candidates this year. It was the first since the one held in Big Sky in June.
Incumbent Sen. John Tester and Republican challenger Rep. Dennis Rehberg exchanged barbs from behind the podiums during the hour-long debate, held at MSU-Billings. This was the first televised debate between Tester and Rehberg, and it made national news this morning.
The two men have been bludgeoning each other in the media in what is one of the closest-watched Senatorial races in the country — with the balance of power in the Senate possibly resting on this race, special-interest money has been pouring into Montana this election season.
The remaining debates will be Kalispell and Bozeman. Below find an analysis of the race.
By Caitlyn Walsh Community News Service/UM School of Journalism
Montanans can’t escape the television and radio ads attacking the two candidates for U.S. Senate. Paid for by official groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and murkier organizations like Crossroads GPS, the ads generally assault Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Dennis Rehberg as being out of touch with normal Montanans.
The deluge often leaves Montanans wondering who the candidates are and where they stand on major issues.
This has become a battle of who is the most authentic Montanan, with Rehberg’s website stressing he is “a fifth-generation Montana rancher and small businessman” and Tester’s emphasizing he is “a third-generation Montana dirt farmer who brings Montana values with him to the U.S. Senate.”
Despite these differences, the two agree on many contentious issues facing the state.
Both Tester and Rehberg call for creating jobs in Montana by deregulating small business and cutting taxes, though they often spar vehemently over exactly what taxes and regulations need to be targeted. Both voted for the Keystone XL pipeline and seek to develop more coal and oil resources in the state. And both say they have fought for gun rights in Washington.
Where do the differences lie?
They pull no punches when describing the other.
“Rehberg is not willing to do the work,” Tester said. “It’s lip service versus getting stuff done. Right now, I’m leading the charge on a sportsman’s bill, and we’re going to stay here until it’s done. I have a record of accomplishment.”
Congressman Rehberg agreed that voters should examine their records but disagrees with what they will find.
“I’ll always put Montana first, standing up to leaders from any party as a check and balance. Senator Tester votes with President Obama’s liberal agenda 95 percent of the time,” he replied via email.
The two also disagree over federal health care reform, women’s reproductive rights, and the extension of tax cuts first implemented by President George W. Bush.
“I support a complete repeal of the Tester-Obama health care act so we can replace it with a bill that actually reforms health care to reduce costs and improve access,” Rehberg wrote. “All the Tester-Obama law did was add more people to a failing system. Costs continue to rise, and the problem keeps getting worse. Montanans deserve better.”
Tester voted in 2009 to pass the Affordable Care Act which aims to expand the number of Americans with health care insurance by increasing the availability of Medicaid, allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until 26 and requiring others to purchase some form of insurance or pay an additional tax.
On reproductive rights, Rehberg voted in 2011 to revoke federal funding to Planned Parenthood and argued for reducing accessibility to abortions. While in the Senate, Tester supported funding for Planned Parenthood.
Both candidates also voted with their party on the extension of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, also referred to as the “Bush Tax Cuts.”
Tester sought to amend the bills by “limiting the tax cuts to the first $200,000 of income for individuals and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly.”
Rehberg voted to keep the cuts the same, reducing the tax rate for households making over $250,000 per year.
Staying on message
Throughout the campaign, Tester has sought to distance himself from the president and national Democratic Party. He did not attend his party’s national convention in Charlotte this summer and has several ads out highlighting ways in which he voted against President Obama.
Attack ads from conservative groups outside Montana and Rehberg accuse him of “voting with Obama 95 percent of the time.”
Still, Tester said the Democratic Party is a party that endorses many Montana values.
“We support the middle class, the working class,” he said. “Support for working families, for farming families, is real. We also support affordable education, not only K-12, but higher education, and veteran’s services.”
For his part, Rehberg argues that his policies represent Montana values of less regulation and lower taxes.
“If they want to bolster job growth and economic recovery by reducing the senseless burden of government, they should vote for me,” Rehberg said in an email. “If they want to just be left alone to go about their lives without the federal government directing everything they do, they should vote for me.”
Come Election Day Montana’s choice may resonate far beyond the Treasure State, according to political scientist James Lopach, a University of Montana professor.
“Montana is (the) state that could give Republicans control (of the Senate),” Lopach said. “Achieving that goal in Montana is far cheaper than achieving that goal in an urban area. I think that’s why we’re seeing so much money coming in on both sides. It’s coming in from Political Action Committees.”
The result has been a record number of ads. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Montanans were hit with nearly 45,000 ads in the Senate race by early September, 16,000 more than the next nearest state.
Both campaigns admit the air war of campaign ads from the candidates and outside groups will only intensify as Election Day near. Tester urged voters to remember that the campaign “is about Dennis Rehberg and Jon Tester and what’s best for Montana.”
But Lopach suggested the struggle is bigger than that. “I think it has less to do with Tester and Rehberg and more about control,” he said. “It’s about setting and enacting an agenda for the nation.”