The banquet hall at Buck's T-4 Lodge in Big Sky on June 16 is split roughly 50-50. T-shirts, stickers and signs advertising Sen. Jon Tester's 2012 re-election bid dominate the right side of the room. Supporters of Republican challenger Denny Rehberg populate the left.
Tester's jabs at Rehberg have elicited cheers throughout the 93-minute debate, the first and only one in the race so far. Rehberg's base has answered with equal volume at every opportunity. Moderators have struggled to contain the partisan passions, to no avail. Several women repeatedly heckle Rehberg. As the debate winds to a close, one stands to walk out: "You're a corporate puppet, Denny," she shouts as she heads for the door. Campaign sources later claim that a woman confronted Rehberg's family in the bar outside the banquet hall, shoving the congressman's wife, Jan.
There is at least one sedate member of the audience, a young man in a grey hooded sweatshirt. When the crowds disperse and the candidates head to their green rooms, he quickly moves in behind Tester, training a handheld digital video camera on the incumbent. Tester smiles and shakes hands with supporters, engaging in idle chit-chat. The young man films every second of these interactions, his camera held mere feet from Tester's face.
Since their rise half a decade ago, trackers have become an increasingly common tool for political parties during tense election years. They dog the opposition's every step, documenting their conduct and hoping to capture that single "gotcha" moment that could give their side a leg up. Former Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican, lost his re-election bid in 2006 when he referred to a Democratic tracker of Indian ancestry as a "macaca." The tracker's camera was rolling. Allen's comment likely cost him the vote.
The last six years of American politics are full of examples of how one person with a camera can unravel a campaign. According to a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, however, the primary objective of a tracker is simply documentation. Trackers, at least officially, have more to do with accountability and transparency than cloak-and-dagger politicking.
"Accountability is a good thing," says Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. "Some of the stuff Sen. Tester says, he would not necessarily say to a reporter. We want to have our guy around as much as possible to help make sure the public is aware of everything that the opposition is saying."
The young man at the debate—who declined to give his name on the record—is employed by the Montana Republican Party. He follows Tester everywhere, just as the tracker with the Montana Democratic Party follows Rehberg. In the days of social media and rampant outside spending, trackers are just one tool in a toolbox designed to make—or break—a campaign.
Later, Tester's campaign communications director, Aaron Murphy, pulls around front of Buck's T-4 in a beige SUV. He idles there, waiting for Tester to finish his meet-and-greet. The parking lot is devoid of people, save a few Rehberg staffers packing up the congressman's own caravan. And, of course, the GOP's tracker. He stands next to the SUV, camera in hand, idling.
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Democrats currently control the U.S. Senate. They have since 2007, and yet, in 2012, the tables could easily turn. The GOP is a mere four seats away from a majority, and the party means to take those seats; the National Republican Senatorial Committee has rolled out a fierce "Take Back the Senate" campaign. The GOP has trumpeted its chances repeatedly over the past year only to find, in races initially thought to be easy pickings, Democrats putting up strong candidates like former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp and Medal of Honor winner and former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey.
Third-party groups such as the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS have taken up the Senate fight as well, attacking the five Democratic candidates they perceive to be the weakest this year. Pundits across the country have declared 2012 the "Battle for the Senate." One of those battlegrounds is Montana.
Two weeks ago, the latest poll from Rasmussen Reports put Rehberg ahead of Tester 49 percent to 47 percent, with a 4.5 percent margin of error. The two share almost equal name recognition, and their approval ratings in various polls over the past several months have risen and dipped in unison. It's neck-and-neck for the two; Big Sandy farmer versus Billings rancher. Even during the June 16 debate, neither candidate seemed to have a clear lead.
And so it falls on campaigns to keep doing what they've done now for more than a year: push their candidate's message.
The Tester campaign has spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars this year depicting the incumbent as a "straight-talking, hardworking, common sense United States Senator who gets things done," as his campaign website puts it. It's an elegantly simple message: Tester grew up on the family farm in Big Sandy, taught in public school, met his wife Sharla in a church pew and continues to fly home from D.C. nearly every weekend to tend the farm. He is Montana, and at times seems like the kind of guy you could just grab a beer with.
The Rehberg campaign, meanwhile, is reinforcing Rehberg's image. He's a fifth-generation Montanan. He's a rancher, a small business owner, a veteran of politics since the early 1980s. When he appears in ads, he's usually leaning against a fence in a denim shirt, cattle behind him. His campaign has also played up his family-man cred lately, releasing a message from his daughter Katie about battles for the TV remote, among other things. He's so married to his responsibility that he reportedly sleeps on the couch in his D.C. office—an anecdote the congressman's staff have always been quick to relate.