Lights, camera, action.
A much larger audience than Montana politics is accustomed to tuned in to Montana State University Billings Monday night as Congressman Denny Rehberg and Sen. Jon Tester exchanged rough punches in their second debate for Sen. Tester’s U.S. Senate seat.
The race has become increasingly scrutinized and increasingly negative as the race has emerged as one of the handful of close races that could swing the Senate to either party.
“We are on national television tonight,” said Billings Gazette editor and debate moderator Steve Prosinski in a kind of pre-game warning before the debate went on the air via C-SPAN and Montana PBS and the airwaves through Yellowstone Public Radio and the Northern Broadcasting system.
The excitement and tension in the audience hung thickly.
“Interruptions for applause, hoots and hollers will eat into the time allotted for each candidate’s valuable responses,” said Prosinski, perhaps in response to the energy in the room. “We’re all here to listen to them, not to each other.”
It was a nice thought.
The capacity crowd seemed less like a gathering of undecided voters than a group of devoted followers — erupting in approval or indignation several times during the hour-long debate.
The candidates, too, seemed less relaxed and cordial than in their first debate in June.
Republican Rep. Rehberg didn’t waste any time in reiterating his campaign’s central strategy of tying the Democratic incumbent to President Obama and his policies.
“There are two paths we can take in this country,” said Congressman Rehberg in his first words to the audience. “Sen. Tester and President Obama have taken one path — in fact, he’s voted with President Obama 95 percent of the time.”
The congressman then decried Tester’s support for President Obama’s healthcare reform, a “healthcare reform that didn’t reform healthcare”; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, whose only shovel ready project (according to Rep. Rehberg) was “an additional trillion dollar debt on our middle class”; and an energy policy that was more of an “environmental policy.” But the congressman perhaps left the audience hanging on what exactly the other path was.
“I want you to notice,” responded Sen. Tester, “that Congressman Rehberg didn’t answer the question … [regarding] why we should vote for him.”
He added, “The fact of the matter is we have a broken healthcare system in this country. The bottom line is we have to hold insurance companies accountable. That’s what we did.”
Sen. Tester then cited recent work in Billings on Shiloh Road and the new federal courthouse as tangible results of the reinvestment act. “In fact, I think that Shiloh Road, Congressman, actually provides an avenue to get to one of your villas,” the senator quipped in an aside, drawing laughter from the crowd.
The remarks were echoes from two playbooks Montana has been hearing from incessantly by television and radio, email and mailbox. While Rep. Rehberg has consistently painted Sen. Tester as an Obama clone and pocket Democrat, the senator has fiercely affirmed his independence (he abstained from attending the Democratic National Convention, for example) and has hinted that Rehberg’s credentials as a Montana rancher are little more than political posturing.
In the first debate, Sen. Tester — the third generation farmer from Big Sandy — called Rep. Rehberg — the fifth-generation rancher from Billings — a “mansion rancher” for subdividing much of his land into upscale homes, claiming, “The congressman has not sold a cow or a goat in years and years and years.”
Sen. Tester responded to Rehberg’s persistent Obama shots with, “If you look at the record for the last 18 months, the congressman has wanted to run against Barack Obama. They’ve tried to morph me into Barack Obama. Let me tell you, Barack Obama doesn’t want to see the XL pipeline built. I do. Barack Obama didn’t see wolves delisted. I got wolves delisted. Barack Obama wanted to see the bailouts. I voted against the bailouts. The list goes on and on and on.”
“I put Montanans first in every decision I make,” Sen. Tester continued, “because that’s what’s most important to me … taking Montana’s good ideas back to Washington, D.C., and converting it into legislation and getting it passed.”
“I don’t need to morph you into Barack Obama,” said Rehberg later. “You did it all by yourself.” This was a zinger that brought considerable applause.
Sen. Tester closed with his own zinger by asking those in the crowd from Billings (almost everyone) to raise their hands. He followed this with, “Congressman Rehberg has sued each and every one of you,” referencing the congressman’s lawsuit against the city fire department for not properly putting out a fire on his property in 2010.
“[Firefighters] put their butt on the line. You don’t turn around and respond by filing a lawsuit with monetary damages. That is what you did,” said Sen. Tester, turning towards Rep. Rehberg.
The candidates would go on to agree that bipartisanship was the only way forward in confronting the fiscal cliff in Washington.
The irony was perhaps missed by most, but the crowd loved it.
They had begun lining up outside the doors of the Petro Theater more than four hours before the 7 p.m. debate, and the atmosphere became increasingly carnival like as anticipation grew.
The Rehberg camp gave out bright red T-shirts and free coffee down the hall.
Some of them wore their own T-shirts with “Support Coal Jobs” on the front and “Stop Mothball Tester” on the back, hinting that Tester’s policies had led to coal plants closing, like the Corette plant in Billings, which will mean the loss of 35 jobs when it closes in 2015.
A group of Tester supporters sent their own message with T-shirts reading “Women for Jon Tester” or “Construction Workers for Tester,” some with hard hats festooned with Jon Tester stickers.
The candidates went on to debate about Medicare and free trade agreements, but perhaps the most interesting topic was campaign finance and corporate influence in politics, a topic underpinning what has transformed the onetime small-town Montana race into a monster.
While the official campaigns spend their own millions, Super PACs like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and special interest groups like the League of Conservation Voters are leveraging their own considerable resources in the race.
Legally, the twain are not supposed to work in tandem, but there is a lot of gray area in politics. The Tester campaign has recently criticized Rep. Rehberg for attending a fund-raiser for no other reason than Karl Rove was also in attendance.
Undermining Sen. Tester’s vocal commitment to limiting the influence of lobbyists and corporate money in politics, Rehberg charged, “You want to talk about lobbyists, you’re the No. 1 recipient of money from lobbyists. I look around this room and everyone I see is represented by someone in Washington D.C. [i.e., by lobbyists] but the difference is, I accept their information, you accept their cash, $1.8 million in the last two years from lobbyists in Wall Street.”
PolitiFact has called that statement in a political ad half true because “the ad doesn’t clarify an important quirk in how CRP [the Center for Responsive Politics] puts together its rankings: The ranking is based only on donations made this election cycle” and donations “tend to spike during a senator’s re-election cycle.”
In other words, the money is largely made up of campaign donations for re-election, something that not all senators are up for at the same time, due to the Senate’s staggered election system. Among all U.S. senators, it turns out, Sen. Tester does not crack the top 50 for lobbyist money. Congressman Rehberg accepts contributions from lobbyists himself and simply raised less than Sen. Tester, but this is the kind of half-truth you get in politics.
“Well, I think it’s interesting,” Sen. Tester said, “from a guy who has taken tens of millions of dollars of secret outside money because of Citizens United, which, by the way he supports — the biggest threat to our democracy out there.”
Campaign finance questions have been flying since Sen. Tester urged Rep. Rehberg in February to join him in a pact to boycott contributions from Super PACs and other third parties for the duration of the Senate race, an invitation Congressman Rehberg did not accept.
During his six years in the Senate, Sen. Tester has repeatedly attempted to reverse or mitigate the effects of Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2010 that gave corporations the same rights as individuals to make contributions to Super PACs and politically minded nonprofits.
The senator backed the idea of a constitutional amendment that would see Citizens United reversed, and he cosponsored the DISCLOSE Act, which aimed for campaign finance transparency in reaction to Citizens United. Additionally, he introduced the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, which would have candidates disclose their finance reports electronically rather than in paper form.
Both bills failed, as did the constitutional amendment, and after Rep. Rehberg declined the offer to sign the pledge boycotting “dark money,” Sen. Tester did not do so either.
Realclearpolitics.com, which averages several Montana polls, puts Rehberg in the lead by 1.7 points. Last time around, Sen. Tester won by 3,562 votes against incumbent Republican Conrad Burns. The race appears to be as close as it was then.
Consequently, millions of dollars are being poured into a race where a third-generation farmer and a fifth-generation rancher are finding themselves in the national spotlight.
Lights, camera, money.