BILLINGS, Montana (Reuters) - Jon Tester, the Montana senator whose surprise 3,500-vote victory in 2006 tipped the chamber to the Democrats, would seem to have a lot going for him as he seeks reelection this fall.
A working farmer from a tiny town in the state's hard-scrabble agricultural heartland, he's widely regarded as a good and honest man — traits that many Montana voters, deeply cynical about national politics, say they value above all else.
The state's economy is comparatively healthy, thanks largely to an energy boom. Its large senior population is historically hostile to the sort of changes in Medicare that are at the center of the Republican agenda.
But Republicans have been gunning for Tester from the day he was elected, and today the Democrat is locked in a bitter, neck-and-neck contest in which a few thousand voters could once again determine which party controls the 100-seat U.S. Senate, where Republicans need a net gain of four seats to take charge.
Denny Rehberg, Tester's opponent, is also an incumbent, having held the state's lone house seat for six terms. Affable on the surface but combative in the political trenches, he hails from an old ranching family, and while the main thing now growing on the 6,000-acre Rehberg spread near Billings is an upscale subdivision, he still claims some invaluable cowboy credibility.
Rehberg, and the national Republican operatives who have poured millions into the race, aim to turn the contest into a referendum on Democratic President Barack Obama. The President and his health care overhaul in particular, are not popular in a state where practicality, self-reliance and fiscal conservatism are often seen as one in the same.
"I don't like socialism," said Roberta Edwards, who farms wheat with her husband and runs an antique shop in Big Sandy, Tester's home town. A thoughtful woman, she likes Tester and his family, whom she knows well. She even acknowledges that her own family benefits from federal farm subsidies — but nonetheless finds herself fiercely opposed to what she sees as a Democratic belief that government social programs can substitute for hard work and perseverance.
Tester goes to great lengths to distance himself from Obama, running ads that specify his opposition to the president on issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline and the bank and auto bailouts.
"We have to run our own race," Tester said in an interview while he visited a YWCA in Billings.
Running against Washington is a time-honored strategy in Montana, and interviews with voters around the state reveal visceral and widespread disgust with inside-the-beltway politics. Yet with the influx of outside money - mainly to fund attack ads that voters also say they hate - it can almost seem that Washington is running against Montana, forcing the brutal partisanship of national politics onto an electorate that would prefer to keep it local, and personal.
A railroad, rather than a river, runs through downtown Billings, the state's largest city. But shiny restaurants and trendy brew pubs dot the streets, reflecting new-found wealth from the oil and gas boom in northeastern Montana and neighboring North Dakota.
Until recently that kind of street scene existed only in the Western part of the state, where telecommuters and second-home buyers fed a robust "amenity economy" in charming mountain towns like Missoula and Bozeman. For a time, a political shift appeared to be in the offing, with urban newcomers adding a blue streak to a rural state where libertarianism and anti-corporate populism have long bounded the political landscape.
Now while Western Montana struggles with the fall-out from real estate bust, the resource economy is boosting the central and eastern parts of the state — and resetting the political balance accordingly.
"Energy is doing very well, agriculture is huge, the economy is doing very well," said Bill Dutcher, general manager of the MetraPark event complex in Billings, as he surveyed the activity at the Montana State Fair one recent afternoon.
Tester, 56, was making the rounds, sampling barbecued ribs and chatting with local artisans and merchants. He later joined a small group of veterans at the county courthouse to honor wounded servicemen who had earned a Purple Heart. Montana has one of the highest rates of military enlistment in the country, and Tester has made veterans affairs a signature issue.
At his next stop, a YWCA that serves as a shelter for battered women, Tester stressed his commitment to women's health issues, another pillar of his campaign in a year when Republicans are seen as out of touch on the topic.
"Programs like this are pretty darn important," he said. Tester supported Obama's healthcare law, though he doesn't talk about it much.
Rehberg, also 56, is a party-line Republican in many respects, though he did earn the ire of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page by voting against vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's budget.
In an interview, Rehberg said he did not necessarily oppose an overhaul of Medicare, the government health insurance plan for the elderly, that's a key element of Ryan's plan. But he called for more discussion: "If you don't have a bottom-up approach with buy-in from seniors, you may destroy the opportunity."
Rehberg touts his achievements as a budget-cutter on the House Appropriations Committee, citing savings of $20 billion on the Pell Grant college scholarship program as an example.
On a recent campaign swing in Great Falls, Rehberg was joined by Arizona Senator John McCain to show his support for the military. At a visit to a small family business that provides supplies to military bases, the discussion quickly turned to "sequestration," the automatic budget cuts that kick in if Congress can't reach an agreement on deficit reduction.
"We cannot take a trillion-dollar reduction over 10 years," Rehberg said, referring to the defense budget. He also criticized the latest START treaty, a nuclear arms control deal with Russia that has considerable bi-partisan support; Great Falls' Malmstrom Air Force Base is a major command for the intercontinental ballistic missiles.
"We have a president who is unilaterally disarming us," said Rehberg. "This is not just about the economy of Great Falls."
Montana, with a population of just a million, is a "cheap date" for national political groups; TV airtime just isn't very expensive. Tester has raised more money than Rehberg — about $9.4 million as of June 30, versus $5.7 million for his challenger — but spending by independent groups such as Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS has more than made up the difference, according to David Parker, a Montana State University professor.
Parker said 14 different outside groups have spent money in Montana. Anti-Tester ads paint the senator as Obama's water boy. Anti-Rehberg ads portray the congressman as a rich guy who is "out for himself."
"What this money does do is it sets the terms of the debate very clearly for voters," said Parker.
More narrowly targeted ads also take swipes at Rehberg's record on the environment, Tester's vote on credit card fees, and the Supreme Court decision that permitted unfettered corporate advertising the first place.
Rehberg also faces criticism among some voters for his involvement in a serious boating accident three years ago that left one of his aids with a brain injury. Rehberg was a passenger on the boat and, like the driver, had been drinking before the wreck.
Tester, for his part, has disappointed some allies on the left with his centrist positions.
Oddly enough, what may be the most important local issue that's directly in the hands of the federal government — public lands policy — is rarely mentioned in the campaign.
Tester had tried, shortly after his election, to broker a "grand bargain" among environmentalists, ranchers, loggers and others to end a decades-long war over forest management. His legislation, which enjoyed the support of many one-time antagonists, would have established new wilderness areas while also guaranteeing the timber harvest.
Rehberg calls it "a highly flawed proposal." But Tester, with some bitterness, accuses Rehberg of deliberately sandbagging the effort for political gain.
"He's been running for this seat for six years," Tester says.
Additional reporting by Eric Johnson; Editing by David Lindsey and Leslie Gevirtz