By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
Sure, incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, holds the seat and a massive money edge over Rehberg. But Cox and his libertarian politics could put the Democrat back in office for six more years.
Tester and his allies know it. Their anti-Rehberg messaging is aimed at blurring the distinctions between Rehberg and Tester, and driving libertarians toward Cox: If you want to limit the surveillance state, cut the national debt and deficit and curtail governmental intrusion into private lives, Tester’s logic goes, don’t vote for me — but don’t vote for Rehberg, either.
Tester and the left-wing alliance surrounding his candidacy, including Montana Hunters and Anglers Action and Citizens for Strength and Security Fund, have taken to Montana airwaves in recent weeks and months to cast Rehberg as Big Brother’s, well, big brother.
They’ve knocked the Republican congressman for supporting REAL ID, a national identification card program passed by Congress but soundly rejected by the states, and the Patriot Act, the national security law passed just 45 days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Additionally, they’ve hit Rehberg for voting to raise the debt ceiling – something Tester himself has done several times – and knocked House Resolution 1505, a measure Rehberg co-sponsors, as a federal land grab.
The H.R. 1505 criticism has been particularly eerie, hitting Orwellian refrains and invoking black-helicopter imagery.
“From two miles up, a drone can read a license plate,” a recent Citizens for Strength and Security Fund ad warns. “And if Denny Rehberg gets his way in Congress, government aircraft could soon be reading yours.”
Forgive Montanans if they head to the polls Nov. 6 wearing tinfoil hats.
Rehberg’s people continually defends H.R. 1505 which gives the U.S. Department of Homeland Security supreme security authority over land within 100 miles of the country’s northern and southern borders. They say it’s simply a proposal to simplify the numerous overlapping jurisdictions responsible for border security.
“But we have a security problem that we know exists, and the solution is to get rid of this bureaucratic turf war,” Rehberg spokesman Jed Link told The Missoulian in May.
Peeling libertarian-minded Montanans away from Republicans is a proven Democrat campaign strategy. Libertarian Stan Jones put Tester in office in 2006 and Cox might offer a repeat performance.
In 2006, Tester bested longtime GOP U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns by just more than 3,000 votes. Jones captured 10,000 votes.
Of course there’s no proof that all 10,000 Jones voters would have broken for Burns. But one source thinks the Republican would still be in office if not for the Libertarian candidate.
“The rule of thumb in Montana is that libertarians take votes disproportionately from Republicans,” Montana State University political scientist Jerry W. Calvert told the Washington Post after Burns’ ouster. He added that there was “no question” Jones extracted votes from Burns.
In the 2006 race, as in this year’s contest, Tester painted the Republican – in this case Burns – as a Big Brother-lover. Tester promised to seek the Patriot Act’s death after Burns accused the Democrat of wanting to “weaken” the law.
Tester isn’t the only Montana senator to benefit from a third-party candidate.
In 1996, Rehberg, then an upstart GOP lieutenant governor, challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. The ballot featured two other candidates – Reform Party’s Becky Shaw and Natural Law Party’s Stephen Heaton.
Shaw, a former Baucus aide who ran in a Democratic primary just two years before, was Rehberg’s spoiler. She took 20,000 votes, while Baucus downed Rehberg by about 19,000.
CNN noted that in 1996, Rehberg ran the typical GOP campaign. “Rehberg espoused classic GOP themes: reducing the size of government and cutting taxes,” CNN wrote after the Baucus win.
Similarly, on its website Shaw’s Reform Party says it seeks “clean, responsible government, a balanced budget, and an end to runaway spending.”
For his part, Cox doesn’t care who wins if he doesn’t.
“We really have two of the exact same party,” he said, adding that if he weren’t on the ballot, he wouldn’t vote for Tester or Rehberg. “I would probably write-in someone or be a ‘no’ vote.”
Cox doesn’t say if he’s noticed the left-wing groups using a libertarian playbook to draw voters from Rehberg, but he hopes Montanans aren’t fooled by scary attack ads.
“I hope they’re not duped into voting for Tester because they think he’s any less a part of the police state,” Cox explains.
He criticizes Rehberg and Tester equally for voting for a Federal Aviation Administration authorization law giving more than 106 government entities the OK to fly drones over U.S. skies.
Cox believes he’s polling around 14 percent, enough to sway the election either way. He hopes he can double that through statewide televised debates in the next two months.
Most important, he’s optimistic he can capture votes from those frightened by what he calls the police state.
“I would hope they would come to me,” Cox says of anti-Big Brother voters.
And that’s exactly what Tester and allies hope, too.
Contact Dustin Hurst at [email protected]