Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on the three Republicans running for the U.S. House in the June 8 primary election.
HELENA — The spring of an election year for five-time Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg is usually not this busy.
Since he was first elected to Congress in 2000, Rehberg has never had a primary opponent. This year he has two: marketing professor A.J. Otjen of the Laurel area, and Plains hospital lab biologist Mark French.
So in addition to buying cows to run on the family spread north of Billings, Rehberg is out campaigning.
“Last weekend I was in Bozeman and Lavina and the weekend before that Scobey,” he said in a telephone interview last week from his Washington, D.C., office. “This week is Choteau, and Sunday I’m taking off” to watch his daughter sing in a Montana State University chorale group.
Rehberg not new to Montana politics and, by now, some of this story is well-known. Raised on the family dairy farm near Billings, Rehberg grew up in a long building originally built to house grain. His father, Jack Rehberg, ran a dairy, an ice cream shop and café and a cattle ranch.
Married to his high school sweetheart, Jan, Denny Rehberg worked for Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Marlenee and later served three terms in the state House in the mid-1980s. He was a lieutenant governor under Republican Govs. Stan Stephens and Mark Racicot.
Despite his impressive political resume, Rehberg may be best known for two personal things: He sleeps on his office couch in Washington, D.C., and does not maintain a residence in the nation’s capitol. And he was a goat herder.
Well, he used to be.
After inheriting the family ranch from his parents, Rehberg ran all kind of animals on it, eventually settling on cashmere goats, he said, because they eat weeds and you can sell both their hair and their meat.
Plus, Montana is a great place to raise goats.
“We’re on the same latitude as Mongolia,” he said. The hair of cashmere goats grows in response to light and dark cycles of the day. Montana is in a sweet spot that prompts the growth of high-quality cashmere.
After he was elected Congress, Rehberg loaned the goats to other Montana ranchers on a kind of animal share-cropping arrangement common in agriculture. But those ranchers needed to divest the herd, and Rehberg for the last year or so has been goatless.
“What’s sad is I had built up the genetics of good, quality cashmere,” he said.
That’s why this year Rehberg is looking to buy some cows to put on the family place, which is managed by other people.
He and his wife have also subdivided part of the ranch into high-end subdivision near Billings.
They have three children — A.J., 26, an international business consultant in Washington, D.C.; Katie, 22, studying to be a Spanish teacher at Montana State University in Bozeman; and Elsie, 12, a sixth-grader in Billings.
Politically, Rehberg has always been a reliable, traditional Republican, although he has broken with his party on issues like country of origin labeling for beef, which he always strongly supported.
This time, Rehberg said, he’s running to challenge what he describes as the Obama-Reid-Pelosi style of government that favors borrowing money to prop up the economy with government spending, referring to Democratic President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Rehberg said that policy only writes a bigger rubber check that will come due in the future. He favors tax cuts to small businesses, which, he said, are the engines of economic growth.
“The No. 1 issue is jobs,” he said. “What the Obama, Pelosi and Reid agenda has done is slowed down our ability to create jobs in the private sector.”
Rehberg said he has also been a critic of the Democrats efforts to overhaul health care, an effort lead by fellow Montanan Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat.
Although the Democrats’ effort passed into law, which mandates private health insurance for most Americans, Rehberg said he thinks that effort is misguided and will cost much more than advertised.
“We’ve got to stop the ballooning deficit we’ve created,” he said.
Democrats already are gearing up to run against Rehberg, the heavy favorite for the GOP nomination, and are expected to make an issue of a serious boat crash on Flathead Lake last summer. State Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, who tests show was intoxicated, drove the boat, while Rehberg was a passenger along with two aides who were hurt, one seriously.
Next: A profile of Mark French, a Republican running for the U.S. House.