HELENA — U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg's expected challenge against Sen. Jon Tester sets up a heavyweight matchup that will pit the undisputed leader of the Montana Republican Party against perhaps the state's most beloved Democrat.
Even as it puts much on the line for both parties, the 2012 race also offers both sides a chance to settle old scores.
Republicans are still sore more than four years after Tester unseated U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, whom Rehberg helped to elect in 1988 by running his campaign. Many in the GOP complain Tester's 2006 campaign unfairly painted the longtime Republican senator as crooked.
Democrats, meanwhile, have waited for the chance to knock off Rehberg, who many in the party believe has coasted to cheap election wins without a strong challenge.
Source confirms Rehberg is running
A longtime Montana Republican with direct knowledge of the decision confirmed with The Associated Press on Tuesday that Rehberg planned to announce his candidacy Saturday at a GOP dinner in Helena.
Tester nagged Rehberg for inviting Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, to the dinner, saying the tea party favorite wrongly favors cutting funding for veterans' programs, which the senator has strongly advocated in recent years.
Rehberg, meanwhile, has been explaining his policy switch on congressional earmarks, an issue for which Tester has faced constant GOP criticism.
A Rehberg loss would strip his party of its biggest name and strategist. For Democrats, losing Tester would certainly demoralize rank-and-file supporters whom he energized with his every-man persona and come-from-nowhere win in 2006.
GOP ties Tester to Obama
Republicans are adamant that opposition in the state to President Barack Obama's policies will extend to Election Day 2012 and undo Tester.
"There is certainly all across Montana a great deal of frustration with Washington D.C., and more specifically the policies coming out of the Obama administration and some of the policies coming out of Congress, specifically the Senate," said Rehberg friend and former staff chief Erik Iverson.
Democrats, however, think Rehberg's politics lean too far to the right — especially as he woos tea party support — and lack enough meaningful compromise on important issues to woo swing voters key to any election win.
"That's a dangerous gamble among thoughtful Republicans, independents, and main street Montanans," said Barrett Kaiser, a veteran strategist and consultant for Democrats in the state.
Tester is loved by Democrats
Active Democrats may respect and fear Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his political acumen and my-way-or-the-highway approach, and depend on Baucus, the elder statesman, for his ability to get things done at home and in Congress. But it is Tester, above other party leaders, who is genuinely well-liked.
"What blanket poll numbers don't tell you is intensity of support," said Kaiser, who used to work for Baucus. "People don't just like Jon Tester, they love Jon Tester and will come out in droves."
There are many parallels to Rehberg's failed attempt in 1996 to topple Baucus. At the time Baucus was also weighed down by baggage from his national party.
Gun control votes in the early 1990s were very unpopular in Montana and sparked strong rhetoric, similar to that now heard in the federal health care debate. And back in 1996, Republicans labeled Baucus the most vulnerable Senate incumbent — as they are trying to do with Tester.
But despite Baucus' low approval ratings at the time, Rehberg couldn't beat him.
Rehberg blamed several factors for the 1996 loss, including Baucus' campaign money and strong name recognition. Rehberg also believed the National Republican Senatorial Committee's negative campaign strategy backfired.
This time around he has about as much money as Tester, and equal name recognition. But national Republicans are again going negative against Tester, blasting him on different occasions for various stances.
Supporters argue much has changed for Rehberg since 1996, and he's gained a broader and deeper base.
His political career appears built for this moment. He worked his way through the state legislature in the 1980s, served as lieutenant governor and shrewdly built his name after a bitter loss in his first senate bid in 1996 against Democrat Max Baucus.
Political scientist Christopher Muste said it is going to be a very tough, close election that lasts far longer and gets far more attention than Montanans are accustomed.
"I think they are both going to try to paint themselves as moderate in the Montana mold and accuse the other of being extreme and out of touch with Montana," he said. "It should be a wild ride."