Tester has his hands full 

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

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Is he a real rancher?

The day after Rehberg’s speech before the GOP convention, Montana gets its first view of the Senate candidates side by side, in Big Sky. The dining hall at Buck’s T-4 Lodge is split roughly evenly between Tester and Rehberg supporters. A panel of moderators selected by the Montana Newspaper Association has trouble keeping the crowd subdued as the questions begin.

Almost immediately, the impact of negative messaging about Tester is apparent. The incumbent is asked to respond to the allegation that he’s sided with Obama “95 percent of the time.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

Rehberg and his third-party allies may selectively represent votes from his Senate record, Tester says, but he’s disagreed with the Obama administration repeatedly: He pushed for delisting wolves in Montana, he voted against the auto industry bailout and he opposed the administration’s attempt to restrict child labor on farms. “I think ultimately what you have to look at is who represents Montana in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “If there’s good policy that comes down the pipe that helps Montana, I support it. If it’s making sure that our young people have access to education, I support it…If our elderly folks need a safety net like Social Security...and Medicare, it’s critically important we make those programs stronger in the future.”

As the debate continues, Tester appears increasingly confident. He speaks slowly and methodically. He seems engaged and knowledgeable. When his fans cheer, he politely asks them to quiet down.

Rehberg speaks more quickly. His responses are jam-packed with information and he occasionally stumbles over his own sentences while gesturing emphatically. When Rehberg says he supports the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which opened campaigns to unprecedented amounts of outside spending, he elicits a chorus of boos.

Tester’s reply is pointed. “News flash: Corporations aren’t people.”

For Tester, Citizens United has given corporations more influence in politics than the voters. The amount of secret money coming into this campaign alone corrupts the process and puts democracy at risk, he says.

“What about unions?” Rehberg interjects. He’s drowned out by cheers from the Tester camp.

The debate raises another question. Rehberg repeatedly refers to his roots as a fifth-generation Montana rancher. He and his wife, Jan, struggled through the late 1970s and 1980s to rebuild the Rehberg family’s ranch, outside Billings, he’s said, after they were forced to sell off a third of their holdings—the house, the corrals, the barn—to pay off inheritance taxes in 1974. It took them 10 years to put a house back on the land. By then, Rehberg had already entered politics as a representative in the state legislature. Rehberg gave up ranching in 2001, citing difficulty balancing duties at home with his responsibilities as Montana’s congressman. Now he’s largely in the real estate business, subdividing and developing the family spread under the name Rehberg Ranch.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo courtesy of the Denny Rehberg campaign
  • Rehberg in Polson. During the campaign, Rehberg has defended his identity as a rancher. “I live on a ranch,” he told the Indy. “It’s my home and it always will be.”

“I live on a ranch, it’s my home and it always will be,” Rehberg told the Indy in a prepared response. He said he’s owned cattle off and on and that he’s had pasture agreements with other livestock owners. However, he said, “Representing Montana and ranching are both full-time jobs, and anyone who tells you they can do both of those jobs at the same time simply isn’t being honest.”

Near the end of the debate in Big Sky, the Tester campaign sends out an email saying that according to the Montana Department of Livestock, “neither Dennis Rehberg nor Rehberg Ranch LLC has sold or inspected any sort of livestock for at least 12 years.”

In his closing remarks, Tester fires another salvo in the who’s-the-real-Montanan battle: “Building houses and mansion ranching,” he declares, “ain’t real ranching.”

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