Last week's primary results appeared to give Sen. Jon Tester's re-election campaign fresh ammunition against GOP challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg. Dennis Teske, a farmer from Terry, managed to bleed nearly 25 percent of the Republican vote from Rehberg; Democrats were quick to proclaim that one in four Republicans don't support Rehberg's bid for senate.
But that's not entirely the case. Montana saw similar results in the 2010 primary race for the state's sole House seat. Mark French pulled roughly 19 percent of the Republican vote away from Rehberg then. An additional six percent went to A.J. Otjen, making Teske's performance June 5 less than surprising.
"When voters are given a choice, a certain number of those voters will take the other choice regardless," says David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University. "There's a wide swath of people who do consider themselves Republican. Some of them had somebodyTeskewho spun himself as a bit more libertarian."
Some of those same folks may vote for the libertarian candidate, Dan Cox, in the general election this fall. But Parker questions whether that will ultimately hurt Rehberg's chances. "He got 15,000 more votes than Jon Tester did on the same election day," Parker says.
Few developments in the Tester and Rehberg campaigns so far have surprised Parker, who's writing a book on Montana's 2012 senate race and regularly contributes to the blog Big Sky Political Analysis. Tester has now run seven ads statewide essentially branding himself, once again, as a Montana farmer working for Montana values. That's a typical first step for any political candidate, Parker says. The one surprise has come from Rehberg, whose ads seemed to skip a beat in an already intense race.
"He's not in the phase where he's saying, 'Hey, I'm Denny. I'm the great guy you know, because X, Y, Z,'" Parker says. "He moved right into the compare-and-contrast phase, which usually happens later in campaigns. That's unusual. That's surprising."