Montana Senate race a 'nail-biter'

After spending millions of dollars and more than a year campaigning, nothing has changed: Montana’s Senate race is still tied.

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Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) have been battling for months to define each other and stand up to a withering torrent of spending by outside groups. Tester has sought to protect his image as an independent farmer and paint Rehberg as a corrupt, unscrupulous D.C. insider, while Rehberg has tried to morph Tester into President Obama. But while both candidates’ personal favorability numbers have slid, the polls have remained the same, with neither opening up a lead.

That stagnation hasn’t been from a lack of effort. Tester is wrapping up a 1,700-mile, four-day campaign swing, hitting towns across the expansive state. Rehberg has put 3,500 miles on his odometer in the last two weeks, stumping in rural mountain towns and in Montana’s oil- and gas-heavy eastern plains.

Rehberg’s closing ad features an endorsement from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a sign Rehberg is trying to win back Republican voters who have remained on the fence in the GOP-leaning state. That’s a shift from earlier in the year, when he’d sought some distance from the national party, running ads touting his vote against a Medicare overhaul plan championed by Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Tester’s final ad touts the endorsements of most of the state’s major newspapers and a discussion of his help for returning veterans. Like all of his ads, it doesn't mention that Tester is a Democrat.

Outside groups have been busy too. They and the campaigns have combined to run 25,000 ads between Oct. 1 and Oct. 21 alone — the most of any Senate race in the country — according to a study from the Wesleyan Media Project. That follows months of ads worth millions of dollars in the lightly populated state.

Both sides believe their messages have sunk in.

Rehberg has focused on a Congressional Quarterly report that Tester votes with Obama 95 percent of the time.

“How often does Jon Tester vote with Obama? In our polls nine or 10 months ago, people said 50 or 75 percent of the time. Very few people realized it was actually 95 percent,” Rehberg spokesman Chris Bond says. “We just spent the year highlighting how he's very much in line with President Obama on things like EPA regulations, the stimulus, healthcare, liberal Supreme Court judges. … Now, when Denny goes around the state and asks folks how often Tester votes with Obama, the audience yells back, '95 percent.' We've certainly driven that home; that's a known fact about him.”

Tester’s campaign has spent nearly as much time defending his image. Most of his ads feature him on his farm in Big Sandy in work clothes. He’s highlighted notable breaks with Obama on energy and banking regulations as well as environmental issues, and his ads have characterized Rehberg as a self-interested millionaire who’s abandoned the state. One notably played a clip of Rehberg describing lobbying as an "honorable profession," while another slammed him for suing the Billings, Mont., fire department after firefighters let a fire get out of control on his property.

His campaign said Rehberg's one-note charge hasn’t sunk Tester, pointing to a number of races in which Democrats have won in the state, despite its conservative tilt. Montana has long elected conservatives and populist Democrats to statewide positions, and polls suggest Obama’s popularity hasn’t eroded in the state as badly as it has elsewhere. The president is trailing Romney by approximately 10 points, worse than Obama did in 2008, but only half as bad as Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) performance in Montana in 2004.

“Congressman Rehberg has desperately tried to make this a race between him and Obama. This race has always been between him and Jon Tester, a real Montanan who makes responsible decisions and holds himself and Washington, D.C., accountable, places where Rehberg has fallen short,” said Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy.

At the beginning of the year, Republicans were confident Tester was a goner. But a number admit privately that he’s run a near-perfect campaign, and strategists on both sides — and the campaigns themselves — say they expect next Tuesday’s election to be one of the closest in the nation.

“This race is and always has been close and we expect Election Day to be no exception,” said Murphy.

“I don't disagree with anyone who says this is going to be a nail-biter, but I do expect us to come out on top,” said Bond.

Both sides say they have a narrow lead. Tester’s campaign has him a bit further ahead than Rehberg’s campaign has its candidate, but undecided voters in the state tend to break Republican. Experts say they the race might not be called until late Tuesday night — or possibly into Wednesday.