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Tester Gets Tough Challenge in Rehberg

Tester Gets Tough Challenge in Rehberg

By Erin McPike - February 2, 2011

Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg is expected to jump into the 2012 Senate race against Democratic incumbent Jon Tester with an announcement on Saturday.

Rehberg is a recruiting coup for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which views Tester among their top targets next year.

Former NRSC chairman John Ensign of Nevada tried relentlessly to get Rehberg into the race in 2008 against Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee who ushered health care reform through the Senate last year. Ensign joked in a press conference in the summer of 2008 that he saw Rehberg in the Capitol regularly and told him he was still mad at him for not making the race.

As a freshman who may not have the same kind of pull in Washington that Baucus does as the chairman of a powerful committee, Tester might be an easier target.

Yet, while Tester may have a tough race in what is traditionally a red state in a presidential election year, he may be tougher to beat than Republicans expect.

For one thing, Tester became something of a national sensation from his upset 2006 victory against then Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. His star power lasted through the 2008 campaign when he became a surrogate for other populist Senate candidates from his party - much like Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown did in 2010.

Tester campaigned for Senate candidates in Alaska, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Oregon in 2008 - and five of those states featured Democrats winning in tough elections.

His notoriety blossomed in 2008 during the national economic recession when he reminded financial executives testifying at a hearing that he was a farmer, showing his populist roots.

And the New York Times wrote a short editorial about the senator over the summer, praising him for going home to his farm to raise wheat rather than raise money for his next election.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pounced on Rehberg in a statement this afternoon with a more specific argument than they've made against potential candidates already this cycle.

"Congressman Rehberg has been in Washington for ten years and has nothing to show for it. He's got a record long on spending but short on accomplishments. Rehberg has taken on 9/11 heroes and sued Montana firefighters," said communications director Eric Schultz.

Rehberg and Tester start off on relatively even footing in the money chase, however.

As of the end of last year, Tester had about $560,000 in the bank to Rehberg's $553,000.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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