HELENA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester took the offensive Saturday night on health care and other issues as he prepares to face one of the best known Republicans in the state, arguing that U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg is cavalierly aiming to take health insurance from others while taxpayers pay for the congressman's benefits.
Tester revved up the crowd of 500 at the state Democratic Party's annual dinner and fundraiser, giving his first big political speech since Rehberg announced plans to challenge him. The 2012 heavyweight matchup has both parties eyeing an expensive and long race that will give each side a chance to settle old scores.
Tester told the Democrats that their volunteer work is going to be needed in his race, as well as Democrats' fight to keep the governor's seat, which is being vacated by the term-limited Brian Schweitzer, and hold onto the offices of attorney general, secretary of state, and public instruction.
Already, Tester's Senate race has easily been tagged the highest profile of the bunch — and one that's sure to draw a national spotlight.
"It's going to be tough. It's going to be expensive," Tester told the Democrats in prepared remarks.
Rehberg came into the race bashing the "big government agenda" of the Obama administration and Tester's support of it, including the federal health care law. He too is expecting a tough race, and Rehberg has been wooing the vocal tea party-enthused base of the GOP.
Tester, a grain farmer, attracted voters with his everyman persona to win his first term in 2006. He didn't back down Saturday, attacking Rehberg for getting little done after a decade in Congress and charging the Republican for only recently becoming worried about government spending. He also tried to link Rehberg to some of the actions by the new GOP state legislative majority that has attempted to nullify federal laws while overturning local city ordinances they disagree with.
He's been in Congress for 10 years but doesn't have much of a record — unless you count suing firefighters," Tester said of Rehberg, referring to the congressman's lawsuit last year against Billings for the way it handled a wild fire on his property.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus joined in, calling Rehberg that "millionaire do-nothing congressman."
Tester pulled no punches, and he argued that it is Rehberg, with his recent amendment to defund the federal health care law, who is wrong on the issues.
"It's pretty easy to defund health care when you don't have to worry about your own health insurance, isn't it?" Tester said. "This week, we learned that his amendment would eliminate Medicare coverage for 26,000 seniors in Montana. It would take away free preventive health care for tens of thousands more."
A Rehberg spokesman made it clear Republicans feel Tester's support of President Barack Obama's policies will hurt him come Election Day.
"The choice in this election is clear," said Rehberg campaign spokesman Brian Barrett. "From passing his amendment to defund Obamacare, to pushing through his plan to raise pay for our troops and passing his legislation to establish a nation-wide anti-meth program, Denny Rehberg continues to put Montana first."
Tester said in an interview prior to his speech that he believes the health care issue will get better for Democrats, who have been fighting backlash to the federal health care law.
"If you take a look at what is in that health care bill, to repeal it is not a good idea," Tester said. "The more time people have to see what is in there, they will see there is not the boogeyman in there that they have been told."
Tester has made veterans' issues a cornerstone of his first term, and gave Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot from Illinois, the keynote speech of the evening.
Others taking the stage were Montana House Rep. Franke Wilmer, a professor from Bozeman running for Congress, and State Sen. Dave Wanzenried of Missoula is running for governor.