Young candidate hopes to unseat Rehberg

2009-08-16T22:45:00Z Young candidate hopes to unseat RehbergBy CHELSI MOY of the Missoulian
August 16, 2009 10:45 pm  • 

Five years ago, law school-bound Tyler Gernant moved back to Missoula - a place he calls home despite having lived here only a decade.

Had it been up to him, he would never have left in the late 1980s when his family moved to Idaho. Cutbacks at the school district put his father, a Hellgate High School teacher and coach at that time, in fear of losing his job. So, the family sought stability elsewhere.

Gernant, 5 years old at the time, says the transition was tough.

Today, the Missoula attorney is a Democrat hoping for the chance to unseat U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, the five-term Republican incumbent. Gernant says he wants to bring more job opportunities to the state, so other families won't have to go through what his did.

In April, standing in front of his grandparents' Whitetail homestead, Gernant announced his intention to run for Montana's lone seat in the House of Representatives.

Yet, many ask now what they asked then.

Who is Tyler Gernant?

The 27-year-old has never run for political office. He's never held a leadership role in the state Democratic Party. Even Dennis McDonald, chairman of the Montana Democratic Party, had never heard of Gernant until the younger man challenged the well-connected Melville rancher. Both Gernant and McDonald are hoping for the party's nod next June to take on Rehberg in November 2010.

However, Gernant is raising eyebrows since the release of last quarter's campaign finance reporting figures, which showed him out-raising McDonald by more than $10,000 between April and June.

Nearly all of Gernant's $35,925 in contributions come from supporters living in Missoula. McDonald raised $24,595 in the same period - and a total $46,810 since January - from supporters across the state.

"It's a busy time on the ranch for me in the spring and early summer," said McDonald, during a recent telephone interview from Colorado. Plus, voters still have election fatigue from last November, he said. McDonald promised different fundraising results in the upcoming reporting cycle.

"I don't mean to take anything away from Tyler," he said. "He's a fine young man and a worthy candidate. I have nothing negative to say about the young fellow."

Regardless of age and experience, Gernant hopes his fundraising numbers show one thing: He expects to be taken seriously.

People "who saw me as someone to pat on the head and say 'Good try' may now have to think twice," Gernant said recently at Wheat Montana on Missoula's West Side, sipping a cup of coffee. "It comes back to hard work."

Just back from a trip to Billings, Gernant wore a collared blue shirt, which is becoming something of a signature trademark, seen in nearly all of his campaign photos and videos.

Crisscrossing the state has become a ritual for Gernant as well. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., he is on the phone talking and meeting with potential supporters. On a slow day, he touches base with at least 30 new people. His first fundraiser was two months ago at the house of a local Republican, he said.

For an hour during the interview, his dad waited in the car. Gernant had another meeting on North Reserve Street shortly afterward.

"I've been working my butt off engaging people and raising money," said Gernant, who has been interested in government since a young age.

At 9 years old, he remembers his fascination with Ross Perot during the independent candidate's first presidential bid - something that led the impressionable Gernant to dress up like the Texas businessman for Halloween.

There's a hardly a question Gernant can't anticipate - probably because he's answered them all at least once already.

Many young aspiring politicians begin at the local level and work their way up. But Gernant is most concerned with issues at the national level.

"The change I saw that needed to be made needed to happen on the federal level," he said. "And that's what I know."

Eight years ago, Gernant approached a staffer manning a booth for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus at the Montana Fair in Billings and inquired about an internship in Washington, D.C., where he attended college at Georgetown University. Gernant worked in Baucus' office and later on his re-election campaign.

In 2003, he joined U.S. Sen. John Edwards' first presidential campaign.

Just this past week, Gernant was back at the Montana Fair in Billings. Except this time, he was dropping off his own bumper stickers and campaign material.

Jumping into a statewide race is not totally unconventional, he said, pointing to former President Bill Clinton, who ran for Congress at Gernant's age, or Montana statesman Mike Mansfield, who did not use locally elected offices as steppingstones.

In fact, Jerry Calvert, a political science professor at Montana State University, thinks that sometimes it's better to go right for the top.

"City council in Bozeman is a dead-end job," he said. "You piss everyone off and then you're done."

Just as Gernant is about to answer another question, he's interrupted. Who should walk into Wheat Montana other than Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and who lost in a close race to Rehberg during his first congressional bid in 2000?

Keenan offered a few words of encouragement.

"It's a ride," she said. "Win, lose or draw, it's a wonderful ride."

For two years, Gernant has worked full time at Bjornson Law Offices in Missoula, but now puts in only a couple of hours a week. He owns a condo on Missoula's North Side. In order to cover living expenses, Gernant took out a home equity line on his home.

"I literally mortgaged my future," he said.

Call it idealistic. Call it naive. Call it what you like, but Gernant seems to have a passion for fixing a problem that he has witnessed time and again - friends and family move away from Montana to secure better opportunities elsewhere. That's why he's here. That's why he's calling and meeting with potential supporters day in and day out.

So, the question is not why a dark-horse candidate would take on well-connected political insider, says Calvert. It's why anyone would be interested in challenging Rehberg at all.

"He's totally invulnerable," he said. "He's been skating since the 2000 election."

The re-election rate for incumbents in the U.S. House is around 97 percent, said James Lopach, chair of the University of Montana political science department. Nationally, a victorious congressional candidate spends an average of $900,000 on the campaign.

In 2008, Rehberg spent $764,000 in his re-election bid, Lopach said.

It could be that Gernant is working hard to raise money in the beginning so people stop and take notice, Lopach said. It's a political strategy.

"Sometimes when people don't know candidates, an indication of their popularity and strength is how much money they are raising," he said.

But the fact that people couldn't identify Gernant on a street corner doesn't actually say much, Calvert said. In a study Calvert conducted in the 1970s, he found only one-third of registered voters could name their state representative.

"I don't think that has changed," he said. "If he was an incumbent state legislator, they'd still say, 'Who is that?' "

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy

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