Around the U.S. in 50 Days: Montana

The 2012 elections in Montana will be closely watched and may determine the balance of power in the Senate. All three races are statewide in nature: Governor, at large House seat, and Senate.

Starting with the at-large seat, current Republican incumbent Denny Rehberg is leaving his job to challenge Jon Tester for his Senate seat thus producing an open race. Thus far, the best Republican candidate is businessman Steve Daines while the Democrats will allow state senator Kim Gillan and state representative Franke Wilmer to fight it out for the nomination, a scenario that favors Daines. Early polling puts Daines up 8 points over Gillan and 10 points over Wilmer. Barring a major screw up, this seat should remain in GOP hands.

For Governor, incumbent Democrat Schweitzer is term-limited leaving this an open seat and the chance for another Republican pick up. There are three possible Democratic nominees- John Bohlinger, Steve Bullock, and Larry Jent. On the Republican side are Rick Hill, Ken Miller, Jeff Essmann, and Neil Livingstone. Thus far in hypothetical match up polling, Bohlinger leads Miller and Essmann, Bullock leads all but Hill, and Jent leads no one, making him the weakest possibility thus far. Rick Hill looks like the strongest Republican possibility at this point. Even still, Hill’s lead against the two most viable Democrats- Bohlinger and Bullock- is only by a single point. Obviously, a hard-fought primary campaign in both parties will leave some bruises along the way and they should be fiercely fought. In the general election, the final tally should be close. However, should the Democrats retain the Governor’s seat, it really would not be that great of a deal as the big prize is the Senate seat.

Practically every poll released thus far from a variety of sources Left, Right and everywhere in between indicate a virtual tie (Rehberg up by 2 points). This will go down to the wire. However, for a state of limited population, this should be a very expensive race. Some estimates put the final cost at over $20 million. This only illustrates the importance of this seat in the balance of the Senate. This is a great opportunity for the GOP to gain a seat and ever since Rehberg announced his intentions, this has shaped up as a marquee match up and test of the viability of the Democratic brand in the mountain west. As such, it is probably the hardest Senate race to predict.

Three consecutive polls by different sources have consistently determined that this race is tied. Each side is looking for any opening, no matter how trivial, to give them an advantage. For example, Rehberg took Tester to task for canceling a fund raising trip during the Keystone XL pipeline debate. That fund raiser was with the League of Conservation Voters. In response, Tester characterized Rehberg’s vote against the payroll tax cut extension compromise as “crazy.” Yet, the polls have not budged.

One thing is certain moving forward: Democratic chances of Senatorial victories in Massachusetts, Nevada and Virginia look better today than they did at the beginning of 2011 (although those races will be highly competitive). This race may serve as a firewall of sorts for the Democratic Party. Rehberg would probably win if he can paint Tester as a reliable ally of Obama who is not particularly popular in the state. Also, Rehberg is a member of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress and the Tea Party has influence in Montana.

The story goes that to win Montana, one must win Yellowstone County (Billings). However, that maxim was violated as recently as 2006 when Tester actually lost this county to Conrad Burns but won the Senate seat in an upset. The key was that Tester was competitive on the home turf of Burns. Thus, you do not need this area to prevail- just be competitive. Like 2006, Rehberg calls Yellowstone County his home turf. Unlike 2006, that year was largely favorable for Democrats everywhere and that is certainly not the case in 2012. The question needs to be answered: was Tester simply the beneficiary of a Democratic wave, or the real deal in Montana? Tester needs to hammer, and has, the fact that Rehberg’s lawsuit against the city over firefighter liability for a wild fire on his property will cost the taxpayers money. Rehberg can stifle the criticism by biting the bullet, taking the loss, and dropping the lawsuit. Also, unlike 2006, there will likely be no viable Libertarian candidate to siphon votes away which is what did NOT help Burns in 2006.

Because the race should be so close, both candidates need to win where they are expected to win. For Rehberg, that is the Bozeman and Kalispell regions and for Tester that is the Butte and Helena regions. If either can siphon votes from the other in these areas, that may make the difference. Missoula is the second most populated area. In 2006, Tester defeated Burns by a 2-1 margin and he needs to replicate that performance. Unfortunately for Rehberg, he lost that region in 2006, but has shown steady improvement since and actually flipped it in 2010, albeit by a slim margin. Hence, just as Rehberg needs to do well in the Billings area, Tester must do good in the Missoula area.

However, many pundits in Montana now point to the Great Falls area as the key battleground. Because jobs and the economy will be the dominant themes, one needs to look at the largest employers in this region- public and private sectors- and see how Rehberg and Tester stack up with these demographics. In the private sector, the two largest employers are health care concerns while in the public sector it is the military. Additionally, about 21% of the population in Cascade County are military veterans. In 2006, Tester beat Burns by a couple hundred votes, but over 500 potential votes for Burns went to a Libertarian Party candidate. Since 2006, Rehberg has won the county by an average of 5,000 votes. However, under the watch of both Tester and Rehberg, this area lost a whole missile squadron and its associated infrastructure and there are fears they may lose their F-15 mission in the near future also. Neither Tester or Rehberg have military experience, so neither gets a leg up in a state that boasts 100,000 military veterans. Tester does serve on the Veterans Affairs Committee in the Senate. Among the private sector workers, Rehberg needs to stress the bad effects of Obamacare and connect Tester to it. If he can do that, he should have a decent chance in this area.

Although Montana is considered a red state, it is not as red as some would have you believe. Before the GOP pops the cork on the champagne, there is a lot of work to be done. Rehberg is certainly popular and well known in the state and there is certainly an anti-incumbent atmosphere still hanging in the air, although not as great as in 2010. If Rehberg faced off against Tester in 2010, this race would have been easier to handicap in favor of the GOP. For an incumbent, Tester should be polling higher against Rehberg, not trailing by 2 points.

A preliminary prediction is that former congressman Rick Hill will win the Governor’s race while Steve Daines will win a close race for the House seat, keeping it in Republican hands. And in what will be a close and expensive race and possibly contested race, given the above analysis, I am predicting at this point that Tester will win with the slimmest of margins.

In a running count thus far:
Obama 16 electoral votes to the GOP nominee’s 13 votes;
Governor: net gain of two for GOP (WA and MT);
House seats: +1 net gain for GOP (WA)
Senate: No change

I would like to acknowledge an article from westernworld.com for detailed analysis of the Montana Senate race.

Next: Utah