Tester has his hands full 

Can the farmer from Big Sandy hold off Denny Rehberg and the conservative juggernaut?

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‘Can we afford Jon Tester?’

Denny Rehberg seems to understand his role in this greater agenda. It’s late June and the 56-year-old, six-term congressman is sitting at a conference table in the Missoula Building Industry Association office, fielding questions on topics ranging from the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law to environmental regulations. Rehberg paints certain issues in broad strokes, but he makes one point crystal clear: The House majority the Republicans won in 2010 only gave conservatives the power to stall unsavory legislation. “We’ll pass something,” he complains, “and the Senate will kill it.” Until the Senate majority changes, Rehberg says, he doesn’t see many solutions.

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“What really drove me to consider challenging Senator Tester,” Rehberg told the Indy in a prepared response, “was seeing the direction in which President Obama and the House and the Senate, which were both under Democratic control until after the 2010 election, when we took the House, were taking our country. Senator Tester was a willing participant in the President’s efforts to steer our country far to the left, a course that I, and I think most Montanans, believed to be wrong and harmful.”

Rehberg’s campaign declined to make the candidate available for this story. Instead, it provided his answers to questions via email.

After his June meeting with the MBIA, Rehberg takes the stage in the banquet hall at the Hilton Garden Inn, addressing the 2012 Montana Republican Convention. The crowd is already fired up; the previous speaker came onstage toting a deli package labeled “Tester’s baloney,” a nod to the Rehberg campaign’s second attack ad against the incumbent. As Rehberg launches into fast-paced oratory, the applause is constant.

“Can we afford Jon Tester anymore?” he asks.

“I don’t think so. Can we afford Barack Obama anymore?”

Before Rehberg can answer, the audience cuts him off with a loud “No.”

“Do we need to change the United States Congress?”

“Yes,” the audience exclaims. Wine glasses clink throughout the hall.

“Do we need to elect Denny Rehberg?”

“Yes!”

Surrounded by his party base, the congressman can work a room to a frenzy.

During an interview in his D.C. office in late April, Jon Tester looks comparatively at ease. He wears a yellow dress shirt unbuttoned a quarter of the way down his chest and the cuff of one pants leg is tugged up over his cowboy boot.

D.C. is dysfunctional, Tester offers, “but there are nuggets of goodness that come out of this place, too.” He mentions the Vow to Hire Heroes Act that he took to the Senate floor in 2011, which broadened education and training opportunities for former servicemen and women and gave tax credits to companies that hire veterans with service-related disabilities. Tester says it’s “the only jobs bill that passed last session.”

Despite his demeanor, Tester is clearly fed up with the partisan squabbles dominating Capitol Hill. The people of Montana—of the whole country, for that matter—just want the parties to work together, he says. Their disagreements are blighting the country’s future. But, he says, “it’s that way for now, and you have to accept it for what it is... This is the field we’re on.”

The situation is particularly frustrating in light of the demands Tester has waiting for him back home. He and his wife, Sharla, work his family’s farm in Big Sandy, planting and harvesting wheat, millet, barley and organic lentils, among other crops. He flies from D.C. to Great Falls nearly every weekend, then drives 80 miles up Highway 87, past a huge yellow billboard that reads, “Elect anyone except Jon Tester and Max Baucus.” Still, that trip gives Tester one of his profound campaign strengths: He’s a Montana farmer who works the same land his grandfather homesteaded in 1912.

Returning to D.C. and the dysfunction that comes with it takes renewed motivation every week, he says. “I’m on a plane, in airports, going to them, coming from them, 18 hours a week. You do it because there’s work to be done. You do it because you want to try to make the country the best place it possibly can be for your kids and your grandkids.”

Throughout the D.C. meeting, Tester trims his nails with a clipper he keeps in his top drawer. It seems almost subconscious, as though even off the farm, his hands can’t stop moving.

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