HELENA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and his Republican challenger for 2012, Rep. Denny Rehberg, are in a virtual dead heat for the race, the Gazette State Poll of Montana voters shows.
In a telephone poll of 625 registered voters early last week, 46 percent said they would vote to re-elect Tester if the election were held today — and 45 percent said they would choose Rehberg. Only 9 percent of those polled were undecided.
The poll has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percentage points, making the contest a tie at this point.
Tester, 54, a farmer from Big Sandy, will be running next year for re-election to a second term as Montana's junior U.S. senator. He won election to the post in 2006, narrowly defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.
Rehberg, 55, has been Montana's only U.S. House member since 2001, winning re-election to that job five times.
Rehberg announced last month that he would challenge Tester in the 2012 election.
The Rehberg-Tester battle is expected to be one of the most-watched U.S. Senate races in the country, as Republicans attempt to win back control of the body. Democrats currently hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll for Lee Newspapers, said given that the race is a toss-up now, the outcome likely will depend on the status of the state's and nation's economy next year and the quality of each candidate's campaign.
"Grass-roots organization and working on the ground will certainly be important," Coker said. "It's one of the few races you'll see where both candidates already have a built-in statewide organization."
An improving economy likely will favor Tester, the incumbent, while a lagging economy would benefit Rehberg, Coker said.
Among those polled, Tester and Rehberg enjoyed nearly unanimous support among their respective party faithful, with Democrats almost entirely backing Tester and all but a few Republicans backing Rehberg.
However, among independents, Tester had an edge: 49 percent of those polled who said they are independents backed Tester, while 37 percent of independents liked Rehberg. Fourteen percent of independents were undecided.
Independents make up a sizable voting bloc in Montana, and their support can often spell the difference between victory and defeat in a close election.
Rehberg also had stronger support among men in the poll, while Tester was more popular among women voters.
Fifty-three percent of men said they'd vote for Rehberg and 40 percent chose Tester, while 51 percent of women polled said they supported Tester and 38 percent were for Rehberg.
In follow-up interviews with the Gazette State Bureau, several poll respondents said they had not yet formed strong opinions about whom to support in the contest, almost 20 months away.
"I like Rehberg and I like Tester; it's going to be a tough one for me," said Gary Stewart, a retiree in Great Falls. "Rehberg has done some good things and some dumb things, and so has Tester."
Stewart, however, said he's against abortion and noted that Rehberg is anti-abortion.
Ella Schultz, a retired accountant from Deer Lodge, said she thought both Tester and Rehberg had done good things for the state.
"I wish Rehberg would have run against (U.S. Sen. Max) Baucus," she said.
Poll respondents for Tester said they liked his work ethic and the fact that he's one of the least wealthy men in the U.S. Senate. They also rapped Rehberg as a do-nothing legislator in Congress.
"Hell, (Rehberg) hasn't done anything for all the time he's been there," said Marvin Lyytinen, a retired farmer from Laurel. "He's a millionaire and he's suing the dad-burn fire department."
"I think Tester has done a great job for the past six years," said Peggy Cain, a retired nurse from Missoula. "He's such a hard worker.... (Rehberg) is moving in with the Tea Parties to get into the Senate."
A Rehberg supporter said he's pleased to see a prominent Republican challenging Tester and making a race of it.
"I'm happy to see a highly qualified Republican candidate seeking that seat, and certainly would be supportive of Denny's efforts in winning that seat," said Jeff Bretherton, a real estate agent in Missoula.