Dennis Teske led a quiet, unassuming life before 2012. He grew up near Chinook, moved away for much of his adult life, then settled down 15 years ago with his wife Rita on a farm in rural Terry. Teske, 61, says he'd never had much interest in politics. Never ran, never served, never really wanted to.
Now Teske's a surprise side note in the hottest race in the state. Come June 5, Republican voters in Montana will choose whom to pit against Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester this fall: Teske, a name as unfamiliar to most as the town of Terry, or veteran congressman Denny Rehberg.
"I had stewed for way too long and not done anything," Teske says. "I'd just written my letters and my emails. I'm not a political guy at all... For crying out loud, I'm a farmer, just a small business guy. But it's finally become apparent to me that nobody listens."
Teske filed against Rehberg in Montana's Republican primary in January. His motivation, he says, was mounting frustration with the way the federal government has operated over the past few years. Our country's in debt, he says, our government can't stop spending and our politicians aren't obeying the Constitution. Above all, Teske says, the federal government is doing way too much.
"We have to stand up and say, 'No more,'" Teske says. "We have to take care of these problems for ourselves at a local level. And if we can't do it locally, in our own counties, take it to the state."
Rehberg appeared to have avoided any primary challenges last year. Tester's original Republican opponent, Bozeman businessman Steve Daines, dropped out of the Senate race last spring, shortly after Rehberg declared his run. Rehberg intends to keep his campaign's sights set on unseating Tester in November.
"Denny understands he has a primary election to go through first," says Rehberg campaign spokesman Erik Iverson. "He had one in 2010, he's got another one in 2012. He's hitting as many of the county Lincoln-Reagan Day dinners as he can. He's making phone calls, our staff's out knocking on doors. Denny takes every election seriously, and this primary is no exception. But I think everybody realizes that Denny is the only one who can beat Jon Tester in the fall."
Some of Teske's campaign promises resemble Rick Perry's failed presidential bidnamely his call to eliminate the federal departments of Energy and Education. Others bear some similarity to Tea Party mantras, such as shifting more control to the hands of the states and emphasizing a strong devotion to the Constitution. He disagrees with the move by public schools to discontinue daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The Patriot Act is a sore spot for Teske, as is the National Defense Authorization Act, both of which he says infringe on constitutional liberties. More than anything, he says, he feels the country is spending itself into a hole.
"We're a debtor nation," Teske says, "and we're going to see the demise of this country if we keep going down this road."
Rehberg's camp is confident of a primary win. Looking at the numbers, Teske faces very long odds. His campaign coffers amount to $4,100, a fraction of Rehberg's $4.5 millionand Teske himself has ponied up $2,400 of that sum. Of the rest, $1,000 came in a single contribution from a donor in Casper, Wyo. "You never rule anything out in politics," Iverson says. "Denny had a primary challenge in 2010, which he won handily. We expect the same type of result this time around."
In that race, Rehberg won 74 percent of the primary vote.
Teske can't hope to compete with the kind of name recognition Rehberg commands after six terms in Congress, either. But he's trying. In the past few months, he estimates he's put 20,000 miles on his car traveling from one corner of the state to another. He's trekked from one county Republican party event to the next, trying to keep up with Rehberg and the rest of the GOP's electoral contingent. "Any Lincoln-Reagan dinner, anybody that would host us or listen to us, we've gone to their front door to talk," Teske says.
He's a blip on the latest poll from Public Policy Polling, not even listed by name.
Teske gets it. While the voters he's met have proven receptive to his bid, he says, the party itself has been hesitant to show support. To the GOP, Teske says, Rehberg seemed like the "easiest route" in winning the 2012 Senate race. They're out to topple Tester. "Right now, the perception is Denny has the most horsepower to get the job done." He doesn't fault them.
"All these races, whether it's with Rehberg or the secretary of state or the attorney general, competition is best," Teske says. "Voices get heard, and politics, to me, they're not fun or fair. We're not looking for fun or fair. We're looking to be heard."
It's springtime on the Teske farm. The primary is just over a month away, but Teske isn't sure how much more time he'll put in on the campaign trail. He just got his wheat in, and he's got irrigation equipment to tend and soybeans to plant. He says his first political race is a gamble, but he sees the odds.
"I live in America," Teske says. "I love this country, and I think my odds are as good as anybody else's.... You ever see that movie with Jimmy Stewart in it? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? That's the America I believe in."