Senate race focus turns to get-out-the-vote effort
HELENA — U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg has been turning to out-of-state surrogates to help him rally his base in the election's closing days — while incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is relying on his own star power to excite his followers.
But both have the same goal: increase turnout in their respective bases in hope of breaking a near dead-locked Senate battle where few voters remain undecided.
The Montana Senate race has been nearly two-year-long odyssey that is finishing the way it started: about tied. Both candidates have been hammered in a multi-million dollar slugfest featuring a dizzying number of attacks ads — many from groups Montanans previously never even knew existed.
"It's going to be a damn close election," Tester told nearly 100 supporters at a Tuesday rally in Helena. "We need get-out-the-vote volunteers, so please help."
Rehberg has been bringing in high-profile Republicans from out of state as he rallies party faithful. The list has included South Dakota U.S. Sen. John Thune, Oklahoma U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
At a recent campaign stop in Helena with Thune, Rehberg talked to a smaller crowd than Tester was able to draw. The Republican is sticking with familiar campaign themes as he hammers Tester over unpopular Obama administration policies. Rehberg said crowds at his past town hall meetings are worried about the future because of the president.
"I always ask the question: are you better off than your parents or grandparents? Almost everyone in the room will raise their hand 'yes,'" Rehberg said. "But when I ask the question, do you think your children will be better off than you, will they have the same opportunities? Very few hands go up. In fact almost none."
Rehberg promises his followers: "If you think we can do better by removing the impediments of government by giving certainty in our tax structure, then I'm your candidate."
Tester, with his supporters, also has criticism for his opponent. He warns the party faithful that Rehberg once compared college Pell Grants to welfare and once voted in favor of a bill that sought to turn Medicare into a voucher system. Tester gets a strong reaction from the crowd by mocking Rehberg for claiming during the first debate that a top accomplishment was a study bill on new palladium coins.
"I'm telling you. Why the heck are we even still tied?" Tester said.
Recent polls have been close and within the margin of error, remaining that way despite huge efforts by both sides to move public opinion. At the debates, Tester and Rehberg went toe-to-toe — neither seeming to gain much of an edge.
Montana State University political scientist David Parker said both campaigns are now employing incredibly sophisticated voter outreach campaigns as they seek to break the deadlock. Get-out-the-vote efforts will matter even more.
Parker said it makes sense that Tester would not be bringing many surrogates on the campaign trail.
"The Tester campaign is all about Tester's personal appeal. Arguably, why would you need anyone else?" Parker said.
Rehberg, on the other hand, could be bringing in the high-profile national Republicans to help him enthuse his base and to make sure they don't wander to Libertarian Dan Cox — or even worse to Tester. Parker said that Tester won in 2006 by taking a fair number of Republican voters from former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.
"The surrogates are a way to buttress his credential among tea party and libertarian voters," Parker said of Rehberg's strategy.
Tester plans to continue barnstorming the state in the final full week with a schedule that includes several days courting an important constituency for Democrats — Native Americans. The group helped propel Tester to a narrow victory in 2006. Back then, for instance, Tester carried two-thirds of the vote in Big Horn County, home to the Crow Indian Reservation.
"Making sure every supporter in every community gets out to vote is an important part of our strategy, and Indian Country is certainly no exception," said Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy.
But Montana State University political scientist David Parker said get-out-the-vote campaigns on the reservations are particularly time consuming because in some cases homes may not be as connected with the Internet — or even have television.
"They require more engagement, more interaction just to get them to the polls," Parker said.
That alone may not be enough for Tester in the race. Obama could lose by double digits in the state, and Tester may not be able to convince enough people to split their ticket and vote for a Democrat in the next race appearing on the ballot.
Tester allies have a new advertisement that actively asks conservatives to vote for Libertarian Dan Cox by trashing a Rehberg bill that seeks increased authority for the Department of Homeland Security — an agency viewed with skepticism by many in the state.