In what some folks are calling a heavyweight matchup, the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Montana will feature two statewide office holders running against each other: Congressman Denny Rehberg versus U.S. Senator Jon Tester for the junior U.S. Senate seat.
As most people who follow Montana politics know there are certain areas in the state that are pretty much a given to go to one political party or the other meaning the area swings either to the Democrats or the Republicans during the elections.
For example, the Butte area is considered Democratic territory just as the Kalispell area is considered Republican territory.
This does not mean that less populated areas are not important. This race looks like it will be close, so even a few dozen votes here and there could spell victory. To keep this column somewhat short, I take a look at the seven major areas (Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Great Falls, Missoula, and Kalispell) in the state and go in depth about a couple.
I also pick the one area that could decide the 2012 Senate race in Montana. So you really need to read on…
The campaigns are probably already doing some internal polling to see where they are strongest and their opponent is weakest. They will use these results for staffing, advertisements, mailings, etc., to help their race in the coming months. The more you see a candidate visiting an area in Montana (both official visits and campaign visits), the more important that area is for their election chances. The candidate is only one person and Montana is a big state to cover – so if you see them in your area, you know it’s probably because of the election (or maybe a disaster).
There is the myth that a candidate had to win Yellowstone County (Billings) to win a statewide race. That “myth” has been busted a couple times most noticeably in Tester v. Conrad Burns in 2006 in which Tester lost Yellowstone County by a mere 1136 votes to Burns, but won the statewide race.
But the key there was that Tester made the race competitive in Yellowstone County (where Burns called home and was a former County Commissioner). Tester also has the dubious distinction of losing his home county (Chouteau) by about 57 votes.
Yellowstone County (Billings):
Being the most populated county in the state makes Yellowstone County (Billings) important. This is Denny Rehberg’s home turf, so any votes that Jon Tester can siphon from Rehberg in that county will go far, and it may be easier than expected for Tester to gain votes there. Tester will need to “sing from the rims of Billings” about Rehberg and his problems (lawsuit) that Tester is (so far successfully) framing as being against firefighters.
Ironically, Tester used a firefighter issue against Burns in 2006, but the most damaging thing that happened to Burns was a third-party Libertarian candidate on the ballot taking 10,377 votes that would have mostly gone to Burns (Burns lost the race by 3562 votes).
Bozeman (Gallatin County) and Kalispell (Flathead County) should go strongly to Rehberg just as the Butte (Silver Bow County) and Helena (Lewis and Clark County) areas should go to Tester. These places cannot be forgotten by either candidate because if you are supposed to be strong there, you need to be. If you can take some votes from the stronger candidate, they might add up to a victory at the end of election night.
Missoula County is the second most populated county in Montana behind Yellowstone (Billings). Missoula has to go strongly for Tester in 2012. In 2006, Tester almost doubled up on Burns, winning Missoula County by about 14,327 votes. That same year, Rehberg lost Missoula County to Monica Lindeen by around 3100 votes. Last election (2010) Rehberg beat Dennis McDonald there by about 152 votes. Missoula is as important to Tester as Billings is to Rehberg. It’s the same in Missoula County for Rehberg as it is in Yellowstone County for Tester: Any votes that Rehberg can siphon from Tester in that county will go far.
The Key Battleground Area for the 2012 Senate race is Great Falls (Cascade County):
In taking a look at Great Falls, we find that the top two private sector employers are in the healthcare industry. The top two public sector employers are the military (Malmstrom and Air Guard).
About 21% of the population in the county are Veterans.
In 2006, Tester beat Burns in Cascade County by about 218 votes and the third-party Libertarian candidate took 543 votes. That same year Rehberg beat Lindeen by about 6900 votes and last election (2010) Rehberg beat McDonald by about 7400 votes.
Many folks in Cascade County are worried about the future of the Air National Guard and the active duty base. Since the election of 2006 (and on the watches of both Tester and Rehberg) Malmstrom lost 50 missiles (a whole squadron) plus projected housing being built was slashed at Malmstrom. Now, there’s a chance that the Air Guard’s F-15 mission may be lost – which could mean the loss of 200 personnel from the Guard.
In my opinion, neither candidate has done much to make themselves the “military candidate” in Cascade County. Tester has made some inroads with Veterans from his spot on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which might give him an inside track as there are over 100,000 Veterans in Montana (Note: neither Tester or Rehberg served in military).
Rehberg was recently appointed chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Service, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee which could help him with the healthcare industry in Cascade County.
Republicans have made some gains in the legislative seats across Cascade County. The County Commission is made up of two Democrats and one Republican.
Voters can be sure that outside groups will be hitting the airwaves and our mailboxes in the coming months. There will be an influx of campaign workers from out of state to help their candidates. 2012 will also be a Presidential race, along with several statewide races (Governor, Attorney General, etc.). This race will probably “take the cake” as the most expensive and probably the dirtiest ever in Montana.
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