HELENA — The $47 million U. S. Senate race between Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Denny Rehberg was Montana's top news story of 2012, according to The Associated Press' annual poll of state editors.
The 2012 election dominated the year's top stories, with five of the top 10 involving the senate and gubernatorial races, Republicans' failure to make expected electoral gains, the role of secretive money in campaigning and a referendum on medical marijuana restrictions.
Editors overwhelmingly chose the bruising Tester-Rehberg campaign as the year's biggest story in polling that ended Dec. 17. On a scale of points ranging from 10 for first place to one for 10th place, the Senate election tallied 112 points, compared to the next-highest total, 77 points to both the rape scandal surrounding the University of Montana and the kidnapping and killing of Sidney teacher Sherry Arnold.
Here are Montana's top 10 stories, in order:
Tester defeated Rehberg in November to win a second term in the U. S. Senate and solidify Democratic control of that chamber. The campaign was the most expensive in state history, including $21.4 million spent by the candidates and more than $25 million spent by unions, business groups and partisan committees. Tester won 49 percent of the vote compared to Rehberg's 45 percent, with Libertarian Dan Cox's 6 percent playing a role in the outcome.
Sidney High School teacher Sherry Arnold disappeared in January after going for a morning jog in the Bakken boom town. A three-month multistate search ended when Arnold's body was found in a shallow grave in North Dakota, and two Colorado men were charged with her kidnapping and murder. Arnold's slaying prompting law enforcement agencies to discuss how to better coordinate and deal with the effects of the Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
UM sexual assault
The U. S. government and the NCAA opened investigations this spring after the University of Montana and the city of Missoula were criticized for how they responded to reports of sexual assault. At least 11 sexual assaults involving university students were reported over an 18-month period. Some allegations involved university football players, with former quarterback Jordan Johnson charged and former running back Beau Donaldson awaiting sentencing.
So-called "dark money" flooded into Montana this campaign season as outside groups bought television ads and flyers with little disclosure from where their money came. A legal challenge of the state's campaign laws led to the temporary suspension of campaign contribution limits and opened the door for a $500,000 donation to Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill. Earlier in the year, the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the state's century-old ban on some corporate politicking.
Montana had its worst fire season since 1910, with more than 1.3 million acres burned and 463 homes and structures destroyed. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation was hit particularly hard by back-to-back fires, leaving tribal members short on resources and struggling to recover.
The Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota and eastern Montana brought new jobs and boosted the economy in the region, but communities also felt the strain of the rapid growth. Housing shortages prevailed while local law enforcement braced for an uptick in crime with the population increase.
Voters in November upheld stringent medical marijuana restrictions passed by the state Legislature in 2011. The law requires proof of a medical condition to qualify as a user, adds oversight to doctors who recommend the drug and bans pot providers from compensation. The restrictions on providers were temporarily suspended while a legal challenge is heard by a Helena judge.
Attorney General Steve Bullock defeated former U. S. Rep. Rick Hill in November to succeed Gov. Brian Schweitzer and keep the governor's office in the hands of Democrats. The Democrat defeated the Republican with 49 percent of the votes compared to Hill's 47 percent, with Libertarian Ron Vandevender pulling in 4 percent.
A $3.4 billion settlement between the U. S. government and hundreds of thousands of Native Americans is finalized after the U. S. Supreme Court declines to hear appeals. The settlement ends a lawsuit started nearly 17 years ago by Blackfeet tribal leader Elouise Cobell of Browning, who demanded an accounting for more than a century's worth of mismanaged royalties from lands held in trust by the government
Republicans faltered in capturing 2012's biggest electoral prizes, despite GOP optimism that backlash against President Barack Obama would help them take back a U. S. Senate seat and win the governor's office. Democrats instead won the Senate and governor races, plus four of the five statewide Land Board seats, while Republicans maintained control of the Legislature.