By Dustin Hurst |Watchdog.org
BILLINGS – To grab a second term in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Jon Tester didn’t search long or hard for a campaign strategy.
Instead, he used the exact same blueprint that put him in office in 2006.
The playbook, in short, went something like this: Play up Tester’s folksy farmer credentials, assault the opponent’s character in the waning moments of the campaign and pray for a little help.
Tester and allies executed flawlessly and beat back Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, Montana’s lone congressman since 2001.
Let’s walk back to 2006 for a moment.
That year, Tester served as an upstart challenger to entrenched three-term Republican incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns. Throughout that campaign, Tester relentlessly pounded Burns over his cozy relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Burns only added fuel to the fire by using some of his campaign money to retain a defense lawyer. The Republican repeatedly insisted that the move was a precautionary maneuver.
The attack was part of an effort to paint Burns as an out-of-touch insider who served K Street lobbyists and not average Montanans.
The attacks proved effective and he bested Burns by about 3,000 votes. He didn’t achieve the win without help, though. Libertarian Stan Jones grabbed 10,000 votes, primarily from Burns, which swept the Democrat into office.
Fast-forward to 2012.
Tester’s campaign spent most of October discussing not how he would govern in a second term, but hammering Rehberg over the Republican’s personal baggage.
Throughout the waning weeks of the tight campaign, Tester unleashed a brutally personal messaging blitz against the Republican.
Tester hammered him for voting to raise his own pay, even though he’s worth millions of dollars. They thrashed his lawsuit against Billings firefighters after a blaze scorched some of the congressman’s undeveloped land Yellowstone County.
Finally, Tester’s team dug up Rehberg’s 2009 boat crash on Flathead Lake – an incident which the congressman didn’t cause. Even though the attack whiffed in it’s main point, the Tester campaign kept the embarrassing mishap in headlines in the final weeks of the campaign.
Perhaps Rehberg was too flawed to such a high-profile election.
Rehberg never landed any direct punches on Tester’s character, but instead sought to link the first-term incumbent with President Barack Obama, who lost Montana’s three electoral votes by about 10 points.
Flanked by millions in outsider spending, conservative types just couldn’t make the connection stick.
As with the 2006 contest, Tester couldn’t grasp a majority of voters and needed a Libertarian push to cross the finish line.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, Tester took about 48 percent of the tally, with Rehberg holding 44 percent.
Libertarian Dan Cox took 6 percent.
In a short statement emailed to reporters Wednesday morning, Rehberg gracefully exited the race and congratulated Tester.
“The voters of our state have spoken, and I respect their decision,” Rehberg wrote. “Senator Tester and I share an abiding love for Montana and America, a value which transcends political party or disagreements on matters of policy. I congratulate Jon on his victory in this hard-fought campaign.”
For his part, Cox denies he handed Tester the victory.
“What you’ve got is the liberty voters aren’t going to vote for unsolicited candidates anymore,” Cox told Watchdog early Wednesday morning. “Rehberg’s got to blame his voting record.”
The Libertarian scoffed at the notion that Libertarians are tearing down the Republican Party. “It’s not just me who is making the Republicans fail,” he emphasized.
Cox might not believe he swayed the election, but as the race wound down, liberals surely banked on his help.
Montana Hunters and Anglers Action, a faux sportsman’s group created solely to destroy Rehberg, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars running television ads and mailing campaign literature persuading voters away from the Republican – and to the Libertarian.
Contact: Dustin@Watchdog.org or @DustinHurst via Twitter.