Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., (center) campaigns at a parade Saturday in Belgrade, Mont.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., (center) campaigns at a parade Saturday in Belgrade, Mont. Martin Kaste/NPR
Republicans are still within reach of a big political goal this year: retaking control of the Senate. They lost the majority in 2006, in part because of the razor-close victory of Democratic challenger Jon Tester in Montana.
Now, Tester is the incumbent facing a tough challenge of his own. And if he's going to win re-election, he has to turn out a lot of younger voters, the way he did in 2006. And on that front, he does have some allies.
Pearl Jam gave a benefit concert for Tester on Sunday night at the University of Montana. It was a favor from the group's bass player, Jeff Ament, who grew up in the same small town of Big Sandy, Mont., as Tester. The concert allowed Tester to dangle the state's hottest ticket in front of thousands of potential voters, and for him to bask in the praise of lead singer Eddie Vedder.
"It's not every day you get to do a benefit for a candidate you believe in," Vedder said to the audience.
Vedder saluted Tester and the Democratic Party for preserving the social safety net. But the opinions of a rock star don't carry much weight in Montana's more conservative communities — places like tiny Belgrade, where everybody comes out for the homecoming parade.
Tester campaigned along that parade route Saturday, speaking with potential voters.
Talk of the social safety net certainly doesn't win over Cory Simpson, who was selling hot dogs with her husband alongside the parade route.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., compaigns in Helena, Mont., on Sept. 7.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., compaigns in Helena, Mont., on Sept. 7. Matt Gouras/AP
"You know, our life, I'll just tell you, my husband's an electrician, and he's put in bids and come in third over and over, so you know, the American dream — we bought a hot dog cart, and we started our own small business," Simpson said.
Republicans like Simpson seemed to be the majority at Saturday's parade. Still, Tester worked the crowd, shaking hands with the kind of small-town familiarity that Montanans expect from their elected officials.
Tester certainly looks like he fits in. A burly guy, he dresses like the farmer he is.
In 2006, he campaigned on the merits of his famously cheap, flat-top haircut. But this year, no amount of down-home charm can change the fact that he's a sitting Democratic senator, and that rubs a lot of people in this crowd the wrong way.
Robert Schlosser greeted the incumbent by telling him, "Can't wait to help put you out, bud," shaking his head as Tester walked away.
The way Schlosser sees it, Tester and President Obama have been moving the country toward socialism.
"National health care? Sorry," Schlosser said. "People should be independent, should do their own thing!"
Obama is not popular in Montana, and Republicans never miss a chance to link him to Tester.
At the headquarters of Tester's challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg, a sign on the wall says: "He's a Hypocrite, Stupid," referring, presumably, to Tester. Rehberg himself wasn't available to talk to NPR, but his campaign manager, Erik Iverson, was.
"Montanans are ... gettin' it," Iverson said. "They know that the candidate that they voted for in 2006 is not the senator they got today."
Iverson said Tester voted for anti-gun judges, environmental rules that hurt the coal industry, and an arms treaty that ended up cutting military spending in the state. To him, Tester has betrayed Montana.
"It's about a guy who throws on a Carhartt [jacket], gets his flat-top haircut, and stands in front of a barn, and tries to sell himself as a conservative Democrat. When in actuality, he's a dyed-in-the-wool, garden-variety liberal," Iverson said.
But Rehberg has his own image problems: While he identifies himself as a rancher, Democrats love to point out that he sold off his herd when he went to Washington, and that his operation now looks more like a real estate development.
Still, Rehberg is slightly ahead in most polls, and the race is attracting record amounts of outside money to Montana, along with wall-to-wall attack ads.
An ad produced by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union attacks Rehberg, while another ad, created by the conservative nonprofit Crossroads GPS says that after six years in the Senate, "Jon Tester's gone Washington."
In an interview with NPR, Tester admits to some concern about those ads.
"They cannot beat Jon Tester, the farmer from Big Sandy, Mont., and the record that he's done while he's served in the U.S. Senate. They can, possibly, have a chance at beating somebody that they're trying to define," Tester said.
Of course, Tester still is a farmer with a cheap haircut, and his Montana cred isn't really what's in question.
What's in question is how many Montanans this year are willing to re-elect a senator who belongs to the same party as President Obama.