HELENA — Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., coasted to an easy victory over Democratic challenger Dennis McDonald and Libertarian Mike Fellows on Tuesday to win his sixth straight term in the House.
Rehberg headed the GOP ticket in Montana, and his party appeared headed to big victories. Preliminary results showed the Republicans taking an early lead in the battle to control the state House and Senate and grabbing the majority on the five-member state Public Service Commission.
Rehberg, 55, of Billings, will find himself back in the majority in the House as Republicans wrested control of the U.S. House from Democrats Tuesday, while Democrats hung onto to the majority in the Senate.
Here were the unofficial results with 648 of the 793 precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press:
Rehberg: 183,189 votes, for 60 percent.
McDonald: 102,741, for 34 percent.
Fellows: 17,055, for 6 percent.
Rehberg thanked Montanans for sending back to Washington for his sixth term and said he takes the word and job of representative very seriously, which is why he holds so many town meetings around the state. He schedules a town meeting in all 56 counties at each once during every two-year congressional term.
“This is not a Republican victory by any means,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. “This is a victory for the people of Montana. This thing is better than any one party.”
He said Congress needs to come up with an American solution to fix the economy, not a Republican or Democratic solution.
Montanans want the members of Congress “to talk about good government rather than some of the things that have been going on in Washington,” Rehberg said.
“It’s time to walk the walk,” he said. “The top priority is the economy and turning this around.”
Rehberg suggested taking the unspent money from the $787 billion federal stimulus, which he said didn’t create the jobs it was supposed to, and using it to suspend the payroll tax paid by employers and employees.
As a House Appropriations Committee member, Rehberg said he would continue to push for spending reforms. These include a continuation of a moratorium on earmarks and applying the savings to the federal deficit, implementation of zero-based budgeting, passage of a federal constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget and approval of a line-item veto for the president.
As for the Republicans taking over the House, while Democrats will hold the Senate, Rehberg said he doesn’t want to see House-passed initiatives languish in the Senate.
“The message cannot be lost,” he said. “The House of Representatives is going to work very hard on a lot of these issues, and very frankly, we’re going to be calling on the Senate to help and cooperate, not stall.”
McDonald said he called Rehberg and congratulated him on a good campaign and wished him good luck in the next Congress.
“Basically, I told him this campaign is over and all Montanans need to get behind our elected leaders and all try to work together,” McDonald said.
McDonald attributed his defeat to Rehberg being much better known around Montana, the congressman’s ability to raise and spend more money and the national Republican tidal wave that hit Tuesday.
“Maybe I wasn’t the best of the candidates,” he said. “It was a tough time for Democrats. It’s a tough economic time and tough to raise money.”
McDonald said he’s not one to “cry over spilt milk” and noted that he worked as hard as he knows how.
Rehberg capitalized on a strong Republican turnout out in Montana and kept in close touch with his constituents.
The congressman fended off a Tea Party sympathizer in the GOP primary in June, and later in the summer, he joined the House Tea Party Caucus in Congress.
Rehberg was never in danger of losing his seat as he raised about four times as much money as McDonald, a rancher from Melville and former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party.
“It’s pretty exciting because these are challenging times all across Montana,” Rehberg said. “As I traveled across Montana on the bus tour, I found it was probably the most informed electorate ever. People really know what’s going on in Washington, D.C., and Helena.”
Rehberg was first elected to the House in 2000 in a close race against Democrat Nancy Keenan. He has won re-election handily ever since.
This year, he faced his first GOP primary challengers and handily defeated candidates to the right and left of him.
Rehberg has raised nearly $1.3 million in campaign funds this cycle and spent nearly $1.25 million as of Oct. 30. He reported a cash balance topping $600,000, boosted by the $575,000 in surplus funds he rolled over from his 2008 campaign.
In contrast, McDonald raised about $291,000, spent about $276,000 and had about $15,000 left over as of Oct. 13, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A former lieutenant governor and Billings legislator, Rehberg is the lone remaining GOP state officeholder.
As a congressman, Rehberg has been a solid conservative, voting with his party nearly all the time. He split with the GOP over his support for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the country-of-origin labeling of meat.
He opposed President Barack Obama’s major initiatives: health care reform, the auto industry bailout, the federal economic stimulus bill and financial reform.
Earlier this year, Rehberg joined fellow Republicans in swearing off federal earmarks for the federal fiscal year of 2011. Earmarks are requests by individual congressmen for direct funding of local projects that critics denounce as “pork.”
McDonald and other Democrats accused Rehberg of hypocrisy, pointing out that the Republican ranked fifth among the 435 House members in dollars appropriated for earmarks in fiscal 2010, with $100.5 million and first in the number passed with 88 earmarks.
Rehberg, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said House Republicans would apply the savings from the earmark moratorium to the federal deficit.
McDonald, 66, is runs cattle and horse ranch in Melville, a small town in Sweet Grass County. He previously served as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party from 2005-09 during a time when Democrats now hold all but one statewide office — Rehberg’s House seat.
He emerged from a four-candidate field to win the Democratic primary in June.
A Kansas native, McDonald was educated in California and was a successful trial lawyer in northern California. As he won personal injury lawsuits, he began buying California ranches.
He said he dreamed of buying a ranch in Montana, where he had hunted as a boy. He bought his first ranch in the Bitterroot Valley in 1972 and worked there during breaks from his law practice. By 1988, McDonald gave up his California law practice to move to Montana where he’s ranched full time.
Fellows, 52, is a perennial Libertarian Party candidate, losing bids for the House since 2002, secretary of state in 2000 and the Legislature in the 1990s. He works in video communications in Missoula.