One Of Closest Senate Races May Be In Mont.

In Montana, Democratic senator Jon Tester is in a tight battle for reelection. His likely opponent is Congressman Denny Rehberg. And it's also likely that millions of dollars will be spent on the race, as Tester and Rehberg have failed to forge an agreement barring outside money.

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Republican hopes of reclaiming the Senate this year may hinge on just a handful of states. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, one of the most competitive races is in Montana.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Six years ago, Democrat Jon Tester squeaked into a U.S. Senate seat from Montana by riding wave of mid-term discontent with a Republican president, and by emphasizing his own image as a dirt farmer with a crew cut.

SENATOR JON TESTER: How's everybody here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Great, you betcha.

TESTER: Yah, you betcha.

KASTE: He's still working the folksy angle. Here's Tester last week at the state capitol, with his grandson on his arm.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY)

TESTER: Say hi, guy.

KASTE: But this time around, Tester is saddled by a sputtering economy and a less-than-popular Democratic president. And on top of all that, he's already getting slammed by TV ads.

TESTER: That's probably the biggest difference. They started running ads against me before the last election was over in 2010, and they aren't being necessarily truthful at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is the solution more government interference? More taxes? That's the Washington way. Sadly, it's become Jon Tester's way, too.

KASTE: That ad was paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Other conservative groups have also been on the air. Like the rest of the country, Montana is seeing a tide of third party ads this year from both sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If you cut my Medicare, Congressman Rehberg, I'll remember it every time I visit my doctor. I'll remember you cutting...

KASTE: This union-funded ad targets the Republican challenger, Denny Rehberg, Montana's sole member of the House of Representatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'll remember you protected millionaires over protecting my health.

KASTE: Montana State University political science professor David Parker estimates that these groups have already spent two to $3 million worth of ads. In Montana, that's a lot of money.

PROFESSOR DAVID PARKER: To buy statewide media for the entire state of Montana for about 10 days is about $85,000 to cover the whole state.

KASTE: So for the national groups trying to sway control of the Senate, Montana is a cheap date. But Parker says those groups should also keep in mind the state's longstanding suspicion of outsiders, whether it be big mining companies or the coastal elites.

PARKER: Montana is a little different in this regard. We like to keep the outside at kind of arm's length.

KASTE: He points to the 1982 Senate race, when the National Conservative Political Action Committee came in with an ad campaign against Democratic incumbent John Melcher. Melcher turned the tables with an ad featuring talking cattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Did ya hear about those city slickers out here bad-mouthing Doc Melcher?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: One of them was stepping in what they been trying to sell.

KASTE: This year, Tester tried to score similar points by challenging Rehberg to reject all third party spending. Rehberg upped the ante by suggesting both sides also give up all the out-of-state money in their campaign war chests. Since Tester's campaign fund is a lot bigger, there was no deal and it looked as if Rehberg had called Tester's bluff.

Still, at the recent Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Butte, Rehberg didn't want to talk about money.

REPRESENTATIVE DENNY REHBERG: While people want to divert to issues like campaign finance – and it's kind of a sexy issue – it's not the issue of the day.

KASTE: Rehberg is more focused on painting Tester as a pro-Obama liberal. For him, this race will pivot on the same question that was central in 2010.

REHBERG: Do you believe that the economy can be saved by government intervention? Or do you believe that government should be limited and in many cases, they're the problem?

KASTE: Because Rehberg is Montana's at-large congressman, representing the whole state, voters know both men equally well. And that's why Republican Sabrina Holland says she's not too worried about all the outside spending.

SABRINA HOLLAND: As much money as you pour in, I don't think it'll make a great deal of difference. I think most Montanans have been decided for a very long time whether they support Jon Tester or Denny Rehberg.

KASTE: Actually, Montana voters seem to support both men. In 2006, they elected Tester and Rehberg at the same time. But there's no having it both ways this year, and a lot of money is going to be spent helping Montanans to make up their minds.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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