BILLINGS — A voter survey released Thursday shows Montana's U.S. Senate candidates running just about even in a high-stakes race that polls suggest has budged little despite more than $15 million in campaign spending.
The Montana State University Billings poll found Republican Denny Rehberg, a six-term member of the House, supported by almost 43 percent of respondents. Incumbent Democrat Jon Tester had 40 percent.
The difference was within the survey's margin of error, making the race a statistical dead heat. It's also consistent with a string of other polls in recent months showing a narrow gap between the two campaigns.
Tester and Rehberg have raised more than $18 million combined over the last two years. They have $3 million left to spend with a just a few weeks until the Nov. 6 election.
"Despite those millions and millions and millions of dollars that have been spent in the campaign, the needle just doesn't move," said Craig Wilson, co-director of the MSU-B poll and a professor of political science at the school.
"The last Rasmussen polls all had the race within 3 percentage points. The Lee (Newspapers of Montana) poll also has the race within three percentage points," Wilson said. "The race is too close to call."
The university's late September telephone survey included 477 likely voters and had a margin of error of 5 percentage points. Wilson's son is the political director of the Rehberg campaign.
Libertarian candidate Dan Cox had almost 6 percent in the MSU-Billings poll. The poll found a surprising 12 percent of voters undecided.
The race could help decide control of the Senate, where Democrats hold a bare majority of 51 seats.
The poll showed a plurality of 41 percent of voters thought Rehberg and Tester were about the same when asked who was running the most negative campaign.
In other races, the poll found Republican Tim Fox had backing from 39 percent of voters in the attorney general's race while Democrat Pam Bucy received 25 percent. Almost 36 percent of respondents were undecided.
Fox, a private practice attorney from Montana City, ran for the seat four years ago and lost. If he prevails, Fox would become Montana's first Republican attorney general in two decades. Bucy, of Helena, is an attorney within the state Department of Labor and Industry.
The poll found voters leaning heavily toward Republican candidates for the GOP-controlled state House of Representatives. Fifty-one percent said they would vote for the Republican in their district, and 31 percent said the Democrat. Specific candidates were not named in the poll, which found 17 percent of voters undecided for their local candidate.
Wilson said the poll showed a sharp partisan divide among voters in statewide races such as the Tester-Rehberg campaign. But the results of questions on ballot referenda and other issues showed a more united electorate.
Majorities or near-majorities of Republicans and Democrats agreed in their support of tougher rules for medical marijuana, restrictions on abortion and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
Details of other poll findings:
• Forty-three percent of Montana voters polled said they were worse off economically than four years ago, 22 percent said better off and 34 percent said about the same.
• Sixty-one percent of voters were undecided in the nonpartisan Supreme Court race between Ed Sheehy and Laurie McKinnon.
• Sixty percent backed a referendum that would keep in place new restrictions on medical marijuana approved during the last Legislature. Just under 30 percent opposed the referendum.
• Seventy percent backed a referendum requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions; 22 percent opposed and 8 percent were undecided.
• Seventy-four percent supported building the Keystone XL pipeline to carry Canadian tar sands crude to the Gulf Coast, with some Montana crude picked up along the way.
• A majority of 78 percent of voters said they did not use social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to get information about political candidates.