HELENA - U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., will announce this week he intends to challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2012 in what figures to be one of the most nationally watched Senate races.
Rehberg, a six-term congressman, intends to formally announce his candidacy Saturday night at a Republican dinner in Helena, a longtime Montana Republican source told the Missoulian State Bureau on Tuesday.
The same dinner also features Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., as a speaker. Bachmann founded the House Tea Party Caucus, and Rehberg was one of its first members.
Roll Call, citing a "a knowledgeable Montana GOP political operative," first reported the story Monday night.
Rehberg refused to confirm his impending Senate candidacy on Tuesday.
In a live television interview in Great Falls on "Montana This Morning" on KRTV, Rehberg was asked about reports he is running for the Senate.
"I'm just not ready to make a statement yet," Rehberg said. "I'm still making phone calls, traveling around Montana, visiting with people and we hope to have some kind of a decision announced on Saturday."
A spokesman for Rehberg's congressional campaign, Brian Barrett, released this statement to the Missoulian State Bureau: "Denny has received a lot of support and encouragement to run for the U.S. Senate in 2012. He is weighing all of his options carefully and will announce his decision Saturday."
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In response to news of Rehberg's pending announcement, Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said: "Jon is running for another opportunity to serve Montana in the U.S. Senate, not against anyone." He said Tester looks forward to beginning "an honest debate following the 2012 primary a year and a half from now."
"Jon's known for creating jobs, cutting spending and working together with his colleagues to get substantive things done for Montanans, and nobody is going to outwork him," Murphy said.
Meanwhile, Republican Steve Daines, a Bozeman businessman who announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in November, will announce Thursday he will now run for the House seat instead of the Senate to clear the way for Rehberg.
On the Democratic side, state Rep. Franke Wilmer, a Montana State University political science professor from Bozeman, announced Tuesday she will be a candidate for the seat. (See related story.)
Among those Democrats considering running but who have made no decision yet are: Tyler Gernant, a Missoula lawyer who was runner-up in the 2010 Democratic U.S. House primary; and state Sen. Kim Gillan, work force development coordinator at Montana State University-Billings.
Sen. Larry Jent, a Bozeman lawyer who ran for the House in 1996, wouldn't rule out the option of running for the House, but said if he had to make a choice today, he would run for governor, not the House.
Through a spokeswoman, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose term ends in 2012, declined to comment when asked if he might be interested in running for the House.
The Rehberg-Tester matchup is certain to be one the major battlegrounds nationally as Republicans try to regain control of the Senate. Tester's narrow defeat of Burns in 2006 was the final victory that gave Democrats control of the Senate after that election.
Rehberg, a former lieutenant governor and state legislator, was easily re-elected in November to his sixth term in Congress. In 1996, Rehberg gave Democratic Sen. Max Baucus the toughest race of his career, with Baucus winning by 49.5 percent to 44.7 percent, with minor parties getting the rest of the vote.
The race between Rehberg and Tester pits two members of Congress who rarely agree on issues. Both serve on the Appropriations committees in their respective chambers.
Rehberg, after being a national leader in trying to obtain earmarks, or funding for pet projects, suddenly reversed himself last year and now opposes them. Tester has defended the earmarks he has pitched, saying he has traveled to the areas to assess the needs in nearly every case.
Rehberg voted against and has been highly critical of the federal health insurance overhaul law that passed in 2010, while Tester voted for it.
Tester helped write and pass the law overhauling federal regulation of financial institutions, while Rehberg voted against it.
Rehberg was highly critical of a failed attempt by Tester last year to pass a bill to set aside some federal land in Montana as wilderness and release other lands for logging.
Meanwhile, Democrats had hoped to weaken Rehberg's political future and prevent him from running against Tester by roughing him up in the 2008 and 2010 campaigns. That attempt was thwarted by weak challenges mounted by their last two nominees, former Public Service Commission John Driscoll, who raised no money and wound up endorsing Rehberg, and former state Democratic Chairman Dennis McDonald.