Outside special interests dumped some $30 million dollars on the Montana race for the US Senate between Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, but the race came down to something that costs $19: A Montana resident hunting and fishing license.
Sportsmen issues of access, wolves and gun rights headlined both the news columns and the advertising in both campaigns. Sen. Tester convinced Montanans he understood their values, and their outdoor way of life.
Montana voters went for Mitt Romney 56-43, and then turned around and reelected Sen. Tester by a margin of five percentage points. Rehberg spent nearly $10 million trying to convince Montanans that Tester was a liberal clone of President Obama. That message failed.
It failed in part because Tester invested major political capital in listening to Montana sportsmen and women, and then pulling the levers of power for them.
• Tester worked with Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Simpson to get wolves off the endangered species list and managed by state wildlife agencies. Some out-of-state environmental groups attacked Tester for that right up until Election Day, but that only helped bolster Tester’s Montana street cred.
• Tester was happy to work with the gun industry, for example pushing legislation preventing the EPA from regulating lead in bullets. The gun manufacturers’ lobby, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, named Tester their 2012 Lawmaker of the Year. Even though Rehberg got an A+ ranking from the National Rifle Association, the potent NRA was noticeably absent from the race
• Tester helped bring Montanans together and protect habitat as wilderness and restore fishing streams through the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. This bill also has the support of Montana sawmills and would mandate some logging, which has earned it the ire of some environmentalists. On the other hand, groups like the Montana Wilderness Association and Trout Unlimited support it. Rehberg tried to pound the age-old wedge issue of wilderness against Tester, but it got him nowhere.
• Rehberg supported two pieces of legislation that rankled hunters and anglers. One would have opened up backcountry national forests (called roadless areas) to industrial development. These are prime elk hunting areas and important for coldwater fisheries, so they opened up Rehberg to criticism from hunters and anglers. Another bill would have waved environmental regulations for the Border Patrol within 100 miles of Montana’s 500-mile border with Canada. Again, that exposed a weak spot that Rehberg’s critics aimed for.
The race attracted enormous outside spending because the control of the Senate was in play. Montana, with less than a million voters, was seen as good investment from outside special interests on all sides.
The race was close. Every vote counted and was fought hard over. But there’s no denying the hunting and fishing vote helped set up the debate, and helped seal the outcome.
Ben Long is an outdoorsman, conservationist and author in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media.