HELENA, Mont. — Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is hanging on in a brutal re-election battle in Montana despite a drag from President Barack Obama, who is poised to lose big in this sparsely populated, libertarian-minded state.
His opponent, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, has been unable to pull ahead of the first-term senator after trying to tie him to Obama and the president's signature health care law. Victory probably lies in the dwindling ranks of undecided voters.
"In Montana, I know where Rep. Rehberg stands at, and I know where Sen. Tester stands at," said Great Falls retiree Dale Specht, a member of the roughly 6 percent of voters in the state who haven't settled on a candidate. "I am just trying to figure out who is going to do the best job for our state of Montana."
Both candidates have preached their independent credentials as outside spending bombards TV viewers across Montana's vast expanse with unprecedented waves of attack ads — nearly $12 million worth so far.
National Democratic Party groups, unions and Democratic-aligned super PACs, such as the Majority PAC, have spent slightly more than $7.3 million mainly on attack ads against Rehberg, the state's lone House member since 2001. The Karl Rove-founded Crossroads groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other conservative campaign funding operations have spent $4.3 million on ads critical of Tester.
The race remains one of the half-dozen or so pure toss-ups that will determine whether Democrats continue to control the Senate or Republicans take it over.
Tester may well be helped by Montana's relatively low 6.3 percent unemployment rate. Booming oil fields in the eastern part of the state have blunted the recession's effect and taken some of the sting out of the GOP's national effort to blame family-level fiscal hardships on Obama and Democrats like Tester.
Montana has a rich history of ticket-splitting. In both 2004 and 2008, Montanans picked the Republican presidential candidate while electing a Democratic governor. The state legislature is now dominated by Republicans, but control has shifted back and forth over the past decade.
In some ways the race is reminiscent of 1996, when Rehberg nearly ousted Democratic Sen. Max Baucus from office over Baucus's fleeting support of gun control during Bill Clinton's presidency.
"The good news for Tester is that he has does have a real independent streak, particularly on a series of issues that are near and dear to the hearts of many Montanans," said University of Montana political scientist Robert Saldin. "But in this particular year, with this particular president at the top of the ticket, it's far from clear whether that will be enough."
Tester, 56, looks more like the grain farmer he is than a typical U.S. senator, and retains much of the everyman appeal that propelled him to a razor-close upset win in 2006 over three-term Republican incumbent Conrad Burns.
Tester says openly that if he loses he will be content to return to his relatively modest Big Sandy homestead to plow fields and fix equipment. He vowed in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he would never return to Washington as a lobbyist, as many ex-officeholders have.
However, Tester doesn't plan on losing. He is campaigning furiously with a more complex strategy. He recently held a weekend concert with Pearl Jam — bassist Jeff Ament is a friend from Big Sandy — at the University of Montana to rally his base.
"It doesn't matter what the polls say, it's going to be close," Tester said.
What he almost never mentions is Obama or his vote for the president's health care overhaul — though when asked, the senator says he wouldn't take it back.
Instead, Tester touts his independence on issues such as wolves, big business bailouts, energy development important in the booming oil fields in eastern Montana, and proposed administration agricultural rules considered laughable by many family farmers. He says his top issue after re-election would be to resuscitate a bipartisan balanced budget solution that has languished in Congress.
Tester also has been fighting Rehberg's attacks with plenty of his own, portraying the six-term congressman as a land developer — rather than a rancher — and a Washington insider with few accomplishments.
Tester blames Rehberg for failing to persuade the GOP-controlled House to pass a farm bill. He also accuses the Republican of taking lavish trips overseas on the taxpayers' tab and points to Rehberg being caught on tape saying he relies on lobbyists for his information.
As many voters hold negative views about Rehberg as Tester.
It didn't help Rehberg's case that late last year he had to drop a lawsuit he filed against his hometown's firefighters as political damage from it mounted. Three years ago, Rehberg, 57, also made headlines after he and staffers were seriously injured when a boat being operated by a GOP state senator crashed after a night of drinking.
Democrats also hope the Libertarian candidate on the ticket steals some anti-government conservative voters from Rehberg's side.
Rehberg, meanwhile, is sticking to his strategy of denouncing Obama administration policies and attacking Tester for backing many of them. Rehberg argues that Tester is not the independent-minded farmer the state thought it was going to get.
"It is the cumulative effect of all the taxes and regulations that are stifling businesses," Rehberg told campaign supporters at one Helena campaign stop, reinforcing his primary theme. "Government is not going to create the jobs. Montanans do."
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