HELENA — Get ready, Montana voters.
You’re about to enter the 65-day home stretch of one of the state’s most expensive, raucous and vital campaign seasons ever, with close, hard-fought races for most of our top offices.
Yet while the crowded slate is a lavish smorgasbord for political junkies, many Montana voters are just tuning in, political scientists say — and may be hard-pressed to sort through the lengthy list of candidates that aren’t household names.
“What makes this election unique is you have so many opportunities on the ballot for Montanans to make some clear, long-term policy choices,” said Dave Parker, associate political science professor at Montana State University. “But it’s going to be hard for a lot of Montanans to make all these choices.”
Voters shouldn’t have much trouble deciding how to vote for president, or U.S. Senate, where the top candidates are well-known and offer stark choices on political philosophy.
But below these ticket-toppers are dozens of other races, from governor to Supreme Court to state legislator, where the candidates are not yet well-defined. The races for governor, U.S. House, attorney general and Supreme Court also are open seats, with no incumbent.
“What’s interesting to me is that while you have all of these other races, you really don’t have a whole lot of interest in them, or acrimony going on,” said Craig Wilson, professor of political science at Montana State University Billings.
The state’s top race, of course, is the U.S. Senate contest between Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who’s up for re-election to a second term, and his main challenger, Republican Denny Rehberg, the state’s only congressman. Libertarian Dan Cox of Hamilton is also in the race.
The race will help determine party control of the U.S. Senate, and thus has drawn national attention and millions of dollars in spending by outside groups. Tester, Rehberg and various groups have been running TV ads since April in what seems like a continuous loop, hammering away at each other.
Most polls have shown the race to be a virtual dead heat, and observers expect it to go down to the wire.
Wilson and Parker say that if you’re tired of the attack ads now, it’s only going to intensify as the deadline for sending out absentee ballots on Oct. 9 and the Nov. 6 election day approach.
“Everyone always says they hate negative ads, but they’ve been demonstrated they do have an impact,” Wilson said. “I’m sure (the Senate candidates) have millions squared up, or that’s been promised from these groups, that will be spent in these last two months.”
As voters start paying more attention, each political party has been honing its message, striving to define their candidates as the ones who can deliver economic prosperity for the state and country.
For Montana Republicans, it’s mostly about two things: Tie Democrats to President Obama, whom polls show to be unpopular in Montana, and making it easier for oil, gas, coal and other natural resource development.
“This is a big decision point for Montana,” said Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. “Do we want a government that’s smaller and gets out of the way and lets our business community create jobs? If so, this is the election where voters have a chance to make that choice. …
“President Obama’s policies are unpopular in Montana. The more it becomes clear that (gubernatorial candidate) Steve Bullock and Jon Tester are creatures of the Obama team, we will have no trouble winning those races.”
Greenwood said Montanans don’t like the Obama health-reform law, the economic stimulus bill of 2009 or his polices that restrain natural-resource development.
Montana Democrats say the GOP’s real agenda is one of tax breaks for millionaires and big corporations that ship jobs overseas and cutting programs that people need, and Republicans are trying to obscure that fact by making the race about Obama and national politics.
“Our candidates are focused on things that matter right here in Montana, like health care and education, and supporting responsible resource development,” said Chris Saeger, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.
He also said Democrats will emphasize how they support women’s health issues — contraception, cancer screenings, abortion rights — which are under attack by Republicans in Congress and the Legislature.
The unpopularity of Obama in Montana is definitely a disadvantage for Democrats this election, said Wilson.
Tester, for example, has to spend time telling people that he’s independent of Obama on some matters, yet still ask people to vote for him because he’s a Democrat, Wilson said, and “that’s hard to do.”
While Obama is polling around 40 percent or lower in Montana, the Tester-Rehberg race is still close, so some voters must be deciding their allegiance on factors other than Obama, said Parker, of MSU. Still, the Obama problem for Democrats is real, he said.
“The easiest way for voters to go to the polls and make a decision is to vote a straight party ticket,” Parker said. “Democrats do not have that option. They have to basically hope the decision is based on other factors. … The problem is, that makes the Democratic narrative more fragmented.”
But Parker said Democrats may have something to their advantage this year in Montana: High voter turnout.
The avalanche of TV ads and the big presidential, Senate and governor’s race will raise this year’s turnout, and a higher turnout usually helps Democrats, he said. If Democrats run an effective get-out-the-vote ground game, their chances improve, he adds.
“Democratic voters tend to be less engaged and are harder to turn out,” Parker said. “If turnout is up, it helps Democrats. … The number one predictor of whether you turn out is if you’ve been contacted by a candidate or interest group.”