HELENA – When the dust finally settled Wednesday morning on Montana’s epic U.S. Senate race, incumbent Sen. Jon Tester was the clear winner – despite having had a target on his back as a “most vulnerable” Democrat in a conservative state.
How did he do it?
It wasn’t because of any big mistakes by his chief opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who ran a disciplined, focused campaign that cast Tester as a big-spending, tax-raising, regulation-loving acolyte of President Barack Obama, who isn’t popular in Montana.
For many reasons, the charges just didn’t stick – and Tester ran a pretty good campaign himself, rolling up huge margins in nearly all of Montana’s major cities and winning key groups of voters.
And while Tester was under relentless fire from TV ads by outside groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, he had a little help from his own friends – labor, environmentalists, women’s groups – who not only bought some TV but also ran an aggressive, widespread ground game on his behalf.
The final, unofficial vote count Friday showed Tester beating Rehberg by nearly 16,600 votes, or more than four times his 2006 winning margin over Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. Tester had 48.4 percent, Rehberg 45 percent and Libertarian Dan Cox had a significant 6.5 percent, or 31,500 votes.
Tester lost in 40 of Montana’s 56 counties, but most of those are small, rural counties with relatively few voters.
In nearly all of Montana’s urban areas, he won and won big. In the counties that include Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, Helena and Great Falls, Tester piled up a 37,000-vote margin – including a whopping 17,500-vote victory in Missoula County.
Tester also won by more than 7,000 votes in counties with substantial Indian populations.
The only major population centers Rehberg won were Flathead and Ravalli counties, where he bested Tester by 11,300 votes.
Tester even beat Rehberg in the latter’s home county of Yellowstone, the state’s largest county – where Republicans must do well if they expect to win a statewide race.
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A look at exit polling by CNN also sheds light on where Rehberg fell short and Tester had an advantage.
Tester ran well among women, Independents and moderates, and over-50 voters, who together make up a substantial portion of the electorate in Montana.
David Parker, a Montana State University political scientist who followed the race closely, says the exit polls also show that Rehberg didn’t shore up his base, as about 13 percent of voters who called themselves Republicans chose to vote for Tester or Cox. Parker believes many of those Republican voters deserting Rehberg were women.
Tester’s campaign made direct appeals to the groups that helped him win. He cast himself as a moderate who wanted to break the partisan gridlock in Congress, he emphasized Rehberg’s votes to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood and women’s health clinics, and he sewed seeds of doubt about Rehberg’s support for Social Security and Medicare – although Rehberg insisted that he supported and would continue to support both programs.
“Everything imaginable broke for Tester,” Parker says. “It was like the perfect storm (against) Denny Rehberg.”
As for the ground game, which identifies and registers sympathetic voters and then gets them to the polls, Montana Democrats and their allies had a good one.
The League of Conservation Voters, one of the nation’s most prominent environmental groups, spent $1.45 million on Tester’s behalf, including door-to-door canvassers, mailers and phone calls to get out the vote.
Organized labor knocked on nearly 68,000 doors across Montana, to help get out the vote for Tester and gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock, including 5,000 in the final four days of the campaign. That’s hitting well over 10 percent of Montana’s entire electorate.
And finally, Tester had an ally who was actually an opponent – Dan Cox, the Hamilton Libertarian, who certainly drew some votes away from Rehberg.
A sportsmen’s group supportive of Tester spent $680,000 promoting Cox and attacking Rehberg in the closing days of the campaign, but Tester insiders said their polls had always showed Cox polling in the mid-single digits.
“If Rehberg had been a better candidate, he could have made the Libertarian irrelevant,” said a Tester campaign official. “He couldn’t close the deal with his own party.”