HELENA — Former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who lost a hard-fought U.S. Senate race to Democrat Jon Tester last November, said Friday he’s ready to turn the page on a new chapter in his life — but that it won’t involve running for office.
Rehberg, who’s been a six-term congressman for Montana, lieutenant governor and state representative in his 30-plus years in Montana politics, said he decided before getting into the race against Tester in 2011 that he would either retire from Congress in 2012 or run for the U.S. Senate.
“I made the determination before that it would be up or out,” he said in an interview with the Gazette State Bureau. “As it turned out, it was out.”
Tester won with about 48.5 percent of the vote. Rehberg, a Republican, had almost 45 percent and Libertarian Dan Cox tallied 6.5 percent.
Rehberg said the presence of Cox in the race — and the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by Tester allies to promote Cox in the contest’s final weeks — certainly played a key role in his defeat.
“We knew that the Libertarian was going to draw votes away,” he said. “But I didn’t have any idea that … the unions, Democrats, Sen. (Max) Baucus would raise money to run heavy advertising on his behalf.”
Rehberg also explained his vote last week against the “fiscal cliff” deal that raised federal income taxes on income over $450,000 for couples, made permanent lower income tax rates on other earners, and extended numerous tax credits.
The vote merely continues tax policy already in place and does nothing to solve the nation’s ballooning debt, which he said is still a major problem facing the country.
“They put off the tough decisions, which is the spending problem,” Rehberg said. “They shouldn’t be thanked or commended for that action. They should be held accountable for once again not making the tough decisions. They are delaying the inevitable of some really difficult problems in America.”
Rehberg and wife, Jan, said they hadn’t yet decided what their immediate plans will be. The couple owns family ranch property north of Billings, and she has been operating a residential subdivision on part of the property known as Rehberg Ranch.
“I’ve enjoyed my 12 years in Congress, but there will be a new chapter for Jan and I,” he said. “Who knows where that path will lead, but it will be exciting. It’s always a change.”
Rehberg, 57, got into politics in the late 1970s as a lobbyist for the Montana Realtors Association and an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Ron Marlenee, a Republican representing Montana’s old eastern district.
He was elected to the Legislature from Billings in 1984 when he was 28, managed Republican Conrad Burns’ first successful U.S. Senate race in 1988, became lieutenant governor under Stan Stephens in 1991, ran against and lost to Sen. Baucus in 1996, and won the statewide congressional seat in 2000, winning re-election five times.
While he spent 12 years in Congress, Rehberg said he doesn’t look back at his career as a list of accomplishments.
“I hope my legacy is one of representing Montanans the way they want to be represented in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about, how do you build a better future for your family?”
Rehberg said he worked to bring many a project to the state, such as the Dry Prairie Water Project in northeastern Montana, but that in Congress, one rarely gets to see a finished project or policy objective because it often takes years to achieve.
He said one of his biggest frustrations is the failure of Congress and the president to devise a comprehensive energy policy for America, including the development of renewable power and traditional fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal.
“That has hurt Montana’s economy and it has hurt America’s energy independence,” Rehberg said. “The majority of America is powered by oil, gas and coal … and much of our economy is based on traditional fossil fuels.”
He also said he didn’t appreciate some of the Democrats’ tactics in the campaign, such as using a 16-year-old statement out of context to imply that he favored privatizing Social Security, and criticizing his wife’s subdivision and using it to tar him as a wealthy real estate holder.
“I was never involved in the business,” Rehberg said. “It was her baby; it’s Jan’s business. For the Democrats to chew on a Republican woman for being successful is hypocrisy.”