After a quarter century in politics, GOP Congressman Denny Rehberg is a campaign powerhouse in his fifth bid for the Beltway. Democrats say he’s vulnerable. Republicans say bring it on.
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Photo by Chad Harder
Congressman Denny Rehberg at a March 27 listening session in Philipsburg, using the animated hand gestures and eye contact of a pro.
It’s just after 5:00 p.m. in an empty auditorium at Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC). Glacier National Park’s snow-capped peaks reflect the setting sun’s warm beams through a three-story glass window. The glow lands on a rich maroon curtain that hangs behind a stage, table, and microphones greeting two rows of 44 soon-to-be-filled seats. A couple of 20-something suit- and skirt-clad congressional staffers quietly weave their way around the room. They straighten chair rows and arrange table snacks in last-minute preparations for their boss, Montana’s lone Congressman Denny Rehberg–the delegation of one.
The public listening session scheduled to unfold here—the type of event that’s taken Rehberg to each of Montana’s 56 counties every two years—is a hallmark of Rehberg’s statewide re-election campaign, a strategy fusing the constituent-outreach duties of a sitting congressman with the base-building and glad-handing needed for a strong re-election effort.
With pre-imminent name recognition, impeccable political savvy, and a formidable grassroots organization that’s 25 years in the making, Rehberg has evolved into a political machine so robust the Democrats rightly wonder if they’ve got any chance of beating him now, or any time in the near future. Some say a Demo overthrow might just have to wait until 2012.
At 5:10 p.m. Denny enters the room to greet several Republicans gathered near the coffee urn and sugar cookies. They laugh and catch up with each other about Easter weekend family get-togethers.
Rehberg’s entrance is noticeably non-flamboyant. He avoids the conventional, dramatized entrances that other politicians orchestrate—flanked by an entourage of staffers, cell phones pressed to their ears. Rehberg simply walks in and starts talking to the first people he sees.
The room begins to fill with more chatting Republicans, assorted citizens, and conspicuously silent Democrat staffers and candidates.
Rehberg wears his trademark garb: dark jeans, black cowboy boots, and an open-collared, crisp white starched shirt topped with a charcoal sport coat. The near 6-foot former college gymnast surveys the crowd, pauses, and excuses himself from a conversation. He strides slowly to the room’s center, and smiles.
“Well what’s with all these Lutherans setting up in the back rows?” he jokes, prompting laughter. He squares up with the audience and opens his hands in welcome.
“As long as everyone feels like they can hear me,” he says, stepping forward and leaving the microphones behind. He’s relaxed, well spoken, and engages the crowd with steady eye contact and frequent hand gestures, unburdened by notes. For the duration of the session, Rehberg talks with a directness that lets people know he actually heard their question. As he speaks, his eyes rove over the entire audience. He handles both softball questions and bombshells with apparent ease.
“When you’re talking about Glacier Park, that’s one issue where everybody can get on the same page,” says Will Hammerquist, Glacier Program Manager with the National Parks Conservation Association. Hammerquist appreciates Rehberg’s behind-the-scenes support, but wonders why the Congressman hasn’t publicized his opposition to mining north of the border that could pollute the Flathead River. Western Montanans living under rocks might have missed the news about Canada’s plans to carve out a massive coalmine in the upper river basin. Hammerquist’s question echoes persistent criticism—namely that, unlike Montana Democrats, Rehberg has failed to get out in front on the issue. “The threat is imminent,” Hammerquist says.
“We have some of the strongest clean water laws of any state in the nation,” Rehberg responds, managing to sound understanding and unapologetic at the same time. “Montanans have seen what industry does to natural resources,” he says. “We also recognize that you can’t just go ordering the Canadians around. The papers have asked me, ‘Well, why aren’t you putting out a press release on this every other week like both our senators are?’ Well I’m not one of those who’s out there trying to create an emotional issue rather than solve the real issue.”
If the trick to politics is making forced, impersonal interactions shine with genuine sincerity—in which political machinery looks like a friendly round of one-on-one conversations with countless donors, voters and constituents—then events like these are where Rehberg leaves his mark.
“I came out of the room feeling better in my impressions of him,” says self-described libertarian-constitutionalist Dane Clark, who had grilled Rehberg just minutes earlier over NAFTA, the free trade agreement. Over 6-feet tall, with long hair and a braided goatee, Clark says he’s a little too conservative for Rehberg, but he’s coming around. “I don’t agree with him on a lot of issues, especially the Iraq war. But I was glad I came…My impression of him has improved.”
It’s apparently a common sentiment. “People like him, they respect him,” says Erik Iverson, Rehberg’s longtime friend and current chief of staff, talking a few days later at his East Broadway office in Missoula. “They can tell his heart’s in the right place.”
Iverson’s office is emblematic of his dual role as Rehberg’s top staffer on the Hill and also the Montana Republican Party chairman, orchestrating Rehberg’s statewide re-election effort. The place is part campaign war room, and part distinguished congressional office. Buzzing and beeping noises from incoming faxes mix with the ongoing babble of Fox News and vibrations from Iverson’s two Blackberries on the fine wood desk—one for Congress, one for the GOP.
“He’s shook the hand of almost every person that votes for him,” Iverson continues. “They call him Denny and they feel like they know him personally.”
“He’s frank, genuine,” adds fellow Republican and former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown. Brown says the sense of connection Rehberg forges with individuals and audiences is fundamental to his appeal; his authenticity and genuine interest are his winning traits, supporters say. And winning is what Rehberg does well.
His home, Billings, is Montana’s most populated city; his at-large congressional district—the entire state of Montana—is the biggest in the country. Rehberg’s freshman trip to Congress came in 2000, after a heated race against Democrat Nancy Keenan that he won by some 21,000 votes. Since then, his incumbency has been unshakeable.
In 2002, Rehberg crushed Democratic challenger Steve Kelly by 100,000-plus votes. In 2004, he steam-rolled Tracy Velazquez by more than 140,000 votes. In 2006, as the national and state tide turned against the Republicans, former Billings legislator Democrat Monica Lindeen fared slightly better against the Rehberg machine. She traveled the state in her lime-green, bio-fueled bus pushing an anti-war, pro-small business and alternative energy message. She only lost by 80,000 votes. Strategists admit they barely grazed Rehberg’s armor.
This year, Rehberg has well over half a million dollars in his campaign war chest, the firm backing of the state party, and a seasoned staff–many of whom have served with him for years. He’s well-placed for a winning and good showing in what GOP strategists say are the two key counties: Yellowstone and Missoula. As if that weren’t enough, his challenger is a late-filing Helena attorney who’s raised little money and has almost no political experience—a surprise candidate know one in the Democratic Party had heard of.
If you didn’t know Rehberg, you might think he was just born lucky. To which those who do know him would tell you this: Think again.
In some ways, Rehberg’s history tells the tale of the archetypal Western congressman—the sturdy, independent-minded farmer/rancher who goes to Washington to fight intrusive government and know-nothing Easterners. It’s also a tale about politics in the blood.
Dennis R. Rehberg, now 52, is a fifth-generation Montanan. Rehberg’s wife and high school sweetheart, Jan, is an attorney with Billings-based Crowley, Haughey, Hanson, Toole, and Dietrich.
Rehberg’s father, Jack Rehberg, represented Billings as a Republican state legislator. He won a State House seat in 1964 and a Senate seat in 1966. In 1970, he made an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Congress, losing to Democrat John Melcher.
This was Denny’s early exposure to politics, with a father to lead the way. His career quickly took root.
From 1979 to 1982, Rehberg was the legislative assistant for Montana Congressman Ron Marlenee. From 1984 until 1991, when he was appointed lieutenant governor by Gov. Stan Stephens, he served in the state Legislature. (In 1988 he also helped head the campaign for Republican Conrad Burns’ victorious United States Senate bid against John Melcher, the man who had beaten his father.)
In 1992, Rehberg ran for lieutenant governor on the winning ticket that put Marc Racicot in the governor’s seat. In 1996 he entered the U.S. Senate race, and was beaten by incumbent Max Baucus. (Republicans point out that the 19,000 votes by which he lost is the same amount Reform Party candidate Becky Shaw received.)
Whatever its cause, the loss did little to stop Rehberg’s political rise and resiliency—which many attribute to his upbringing.
“From a young boy, he grew up in a politically involved family,” says the GOP’s Bob Brown, who has known Rehberg’s father, Jack, since the late 1960s, when he and Jack served together in the state Legislature. “He’s a member of an old ranching family that goes back to his great-grandfather,” Brown says. “He’s very proud of that old ranching heritage he was born into. He sees himself as a defender of rural Montana and Montana’s ranching interests.”
“There aren’t too many kids who have that opportunity, to come over to the legislative session and shadow their dad around,” Brown says, recounting the days when Denny Rehberg was just “a scrawny teenager,” studiously tailing his father.
The hallmark of Rehberg’s conservative philosophy–opposing government meddling in private business—grew from the hardships Rehberg says his family experienced, owing to regulations that harmed their dairy business and other concerns.
“We were land rich, but cash poor,” Rehberg recounts. Even the smallest government tax or regulation could spell disaster on the family farm, he says.
As Rehberg worked in the State Legislator, he also developed a direct, no-nonsense approach.
“Denny’s not the kind of guy who backs down easily,” Brown says, recounting a story from the Legislature, when Rehberg sat on an appropriations committee and then-Lt. Gov. Marc Racicot came to present his budget. As Brown recounts, there wasn’t anything in particular out-of-place with Racicot’s budget, but Rehberg gave him a grilling, nonetheless. “Denny really put Racicot through the ropes,” Brown recalls.
In 1992, when the GOP asked Racicot to run for governor with Rehberg as his lieutenant governor, Racicot still remembered the budget incident. The men were able to sort out their differences, but not before Racicot voiced his concerns.
“He told Denny, I don’t know if we can get along,” Brown recalls.
Since then, Rehberg has sharpened his political instincts and become what one senior Democratic strategist called “one of the most effective political operatives in the national Republican Party.”
Rehberg isn’t just a polished politician, observers say. He’s savvy, intuitive, and well positioned.
To win Montana, for one, a candidate has to win Yellowstone County, and that’s where Rehberg, a native, has his strongest support. He also hopes to hold his own in Missoula County, long written off as an impenetrable liberal stronghold.
“It’s not about winning Missoula County,” Iverson explains. “It’s about how can you stop the pain. How can you stop the hemorrhaging, and not get beaten too badly? No candidate wants to lose a statewide race over 1,400 votes in Missoula County.”
Iverson says the GOP is renewing its focus on Missoula, with fervent candidate recruitment, an active local GOP club, and a strategically placed office for Iverson downtown. (Just last week, Republican über-strategist Karl Rove came through Missoula for a GOP fundraiser, his first visit since 2006. Democrats took note.)
“Strategic intelligence” is what continually helps Rehberg, analysts add. He’s able to focus on the right people at the right time.
The trait has been critical, of course, in Washington. Iverson, formerly Rehberg’s legislative director, helped facilitate the aggressive lobbying that landed Rehberg a spot on the House Appropriations Committee–a powerful leverage point in the Beltway budget wars. It’s a position usually given to Republicans with political capital–not some lone congressman from podunksville.
“It’s something that can’t be taught—to succeed and navigate in Washington, D.C.,” Iverson says.
That feat alone, Rehberg loyalists say, is a legislative achievement.
Swift as the successes have been for Rehberg, life hasn’t always given his family the best breaks, he says. For example, his staunch opposition to the estate tax, the federal tax on inheritances, originates with what he says happened to the ranch his great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1800s.
Rehberg says his great-grandparents and grandparents—he mentions both interchangeably at listening sessions—were hit hard by the estate tax when they tried to pass property on to their children. Rehberg alternately says it took 20 years, or 40 years, to repair the financial damage.
“I get real emotional when we start talking about the estate tax,” he tells the Flathead crowd at FVCC. “When my great-grandmother passed away, we had to sell a third of the ranch just to get enough money to go to the bank and borrow, so that we could get it down to where we could afford the payments every month…It took Jan and I 40 years to pay off the debt,” Rehberg says.
(If this math were correct, Rehberg, now 52, would have been married and paying off the debt at age 12. As Iverson clarifies later in an interview, Rehberg’s grandmother willed the ranch to him when he was a teenager; before he received the inheritance, the family sold portions of the ranch in order to pay taxes).
“We lost our home, our ranch, our corrals, our central source of water, and didn’t have a herd,” Rehberg tells the Flathead crowd. “We rebuilt from that point to what we have today.”
And what Rehberg has today becomes the other side of his story. The very ranch and family legacy that’s a fixture in Rehberg’s political narrative is now being sold in portions as a high-priced real-estate development (see www.rehbergranch.com). Homes run from $300,000 to $1.7 million; lots begin at around $50,000.
In an era in which subdividing or selling to corporate farms is all-too-common, this version of Rehberg’s story could rub voters the wrong way. The real estate tycoon image is not the one Rehberg wants to embrace.
It also doesn’t help that the Center for Responsive Politics recently named him the 22nd wealthiest member of Congress—worth somewhere between $11 million and $55 million.
If, on the other hand, Rehberg’s interpersonal skills matter more to voters than his bank balance, the issue won’t do much harm. What people seem to remember most about Rehberg is his likeability.
“He really does try to run his office like it’s a big family,” Iverson says. When Iverson was a teenager and his grandfather died, an unexpected condolence call came from then-Lt. Gov. Rehberg.
“There was no political reason for him to do that,” Iverson says. “He just knew me and had known my dad. I hadn’t spoken words to Denny Rehberg in six or seven years, and he took the time to call me and say ‘I heard your grandfather passed away. I heard you guys were close, and he was a good man. And I’m sorry.’
“It was something that I’ll never forget,” Iverson says.
Call any of a number of Democratic analysts in Montana or Washington and they’ll immediately tick off a list of Rehberg wrongs.
Democrats slam him for his failures to pass legislation. They say he’s increasingly out of touch with Montanans. They note his recent trips to Paris and South America last summer—during some of Montana’s worst wildfires. As one of the richest men in Congress, he’s not exactly the everyman he makes himself out to be, they add.
“If you look at Dennis Rehberg’s entire political career, after some 25 years in politics, what can you point to as a single legislative achievement?” asks state Democratic Party Chairman Dennis McDonald, echoing the sentiments of many Democrats these days.
“We have in Dennis Rehberg a person that, I believe, is out of step with ordinary Montanans. He’s voted against minimum wage increases at every opportunity–including the latest one that 70 percent of Montanans voted for. At the same time he’s voted for his own pay raise as the 22nd wealthiest member of Congress.”
McDonald, a Melville cattle rancher, doesn’t buy Rehberg’s rancher image, either. “He’s a first generation Montana subdivider,” he points out. “He gave up on ranching and subdivided his family’s property.”
More generally, Democrats say Rehberg’s “gone Washington” and forgotten about the folks back home.
This message will come loudest from Jim Hunt, the likely Democratic primary winner in June. A Helena consumer and personal injury lawyer, Hunt is many things Rehberg is not. He’s a U.S. Army Reserves veteran who is firmly opposed to the war in Iraq, and a fourth-generation Montanan who grew up on a ranch in Chester. If Rehberg is the image of a handsome Western rancher, Hunt is…well, an ordinary guy. He’s bald and wears glasses, bolo ties, jeans, and a shiny belt buckle.
“I really believe my values are closer to Montanans’ than Congressman Rehberg,” Hunt says, “and I am going to have the money and the grassroots support to win.”
According to the Democratic Party, Hunt’s bid—his first try for elective office—was a total surprise.
“Lightning strikes all the time in politics,” says former Montana Democratic Congressman Pat Williams. “It’s not easy to beat an incumbent, but neither do I believe he is invulnerable.”
Rehberg’s biggest vulnerability, Democrats say, is his pro-war, pro-Bush record and lack of legislative initiative. He’s voted in lock step with the Bush Administration and fellow Republicans 92 percent of the time, according to the Washington Post, including votes on major issues like the federal budget, tax cuts, and the Iraq War.
He hasn’t crafted a single piece of legislation that has national significance, critics add. (Rehberg staffers will quickly point out that the congressman has co-sponsored or voted on important bills, but a brief silence ensues when you ask them to name his biggest legislative achievements.)
Democrats also intend to win “gotcha” points on Rehberg’s absenteeism during Montana fires last summer. Democratic Gov. Schweitzer and Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus all dropped their affairs to visit the devastated areas; Rehberg was nowhere to be found.
More recently, Rehberg was lambasted for giving a “gay gift bag” to Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, which included a Village People CD, a book on cross-dressing, and a T-shirt that read, “My Senator may not be gay, but my Governor is Butch.”
“It’s indicative of a guy who’s just not in touch with ordinary Montanans,” McDonald says.
Democrats say the national drumbeat for change, a theme driving the Presidential race, will also hurt incumbents like Rehberg.
“If voters feel the country is headed in the wrong direction, and Rehberg is voting with the administration on nearly every issue, then he’s vulnerable,” says Lindeen, currently a candidate for Montana state auditor.
Sharpening their arrows as the race begins moving forward, Democrats seem determined to help cultivate the kind of criticism that they feel Rehberg has long avoided.
“No one has hit him in eight years,” explains a senior Democratic strategist. “So, you’ve got to drive-up his negatives. First, tie him to Washington, make him part of the problem. Second, you find an issue, like the war. Because he’s good on jobs, but poor on Iraq, poor on health care, and poor on education.”
McDonald puts it this way: “He’s been nothing but a lap dog for president Bush since day one.”
Is Rehberg a lapdog who’s “gone Washington?”
“That’s been the Democrats’ refrain now for eight years,” says Iverson. Montanans, he adds, “know it’s not true.”
If the Democrats think the 2008 U.S. Congress race will be a repeat of the 2006 U.S. Senate race—in which voters rejected gaffe-ridden incumbent Conrad Burns, who was facing corruption charges—they’re bound to fail, Republicans say.
“Time and again,” Rehberg has backed legislation that matters to Montanans, Iverson says. He’s sponsored bills to recognize Billings’ 125th anniversary, push for a water project in Fort Peck, and congratulate Carroll College’s football team for its 2007 league win. Most importantly, supporters say, Rehberg co-sponsored the CLEANUP (Clean, Learn, Abolish, Neutralize, and Undermine Production of Methamphetamines) Act to focus federal authorities on the meth problem. The bill is still in committee.
“That’s a major policy accomplishment,” Iverson says.
“Democratic strategists want to make this race about George Bush and not Denny Rehberg. If it’s about Denny Rehberg, then he wins with about 65 percent of the vote,” he adds, referring to Rehberg’s allegedly high internal polling numbers.
Jim Hunt will have a tough time making the case that Rehberg has lost touch, adds Bob Brown.
“Rehberg is far more in touch with Montana and Montana values than Jim,” Brown says. “Jim’s certainly a competent guy, but Denny has the enormous advantage of having traveled this whole state and having been a student of the political process both in Washington, D.C., and in Montana. A fellow who has spent most of his life as an attorney in Helena is more in touch than Dennis Rehberg?”
The better question might be: Is anyone better at staying in touch than Dennis Rehberg?
On a walk with Rehberg to the parking lot of the Flathead Valley Community College, he’s all smiles. He teases his state director, Dustin Frost, about parking the mud-splattered Chevy Tahoe so close to the building, like someone who’s scared of the cold. Rehberg likes Frost; he likes everyone on his staff. They’re like family.
“So at this phase of campaigning, when do you begin to tire out?” a reporter asks. And instantly, Rehberg is on alert.
“We’re not campaigning,” he corrects, making it known that he is doing constituent work, not spending taxpayer money on political campaigning.
Then he relaxes. “But you know, traveling to each county every two years can get really demanding,” he says. “It’s just that it’s important to get out and see what folks are feeling and what’s on their minds.”
He says he’ll make at least eight stops in the next four days, to Flathead, Sanders, Missoula and Ravalli counties. (Aides say Rehberg drinks black coffee, exercises often, and eats a lot of protein to keep his energy up.) The high-paced outreach is standard for a working politician, he says, although “it’s a lot of miles between all these little towns, especially out in eastern Montana.”
And then it’s time to go. With as little drama as his entrance into the community college, Rehberg smiles again, gets into the Tahoe and drives off for his next stop: Dinner after a long day.
He knows how to get there. It’s on the road that eventually leads to Washington.