in Big Sky
October 26, 2000: In the battle for Montana's only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, several things are too close to call. First, the race itself: Democrat Nancy Keenan and Republican Dennis Rehberg have been running neck and neck for months. Second, with the campaigns projecting nearly $4 million in combined fundraising, Rehberg held only a slight financial advantage of just over $100,000 as of Oct. 18. Lastly, though the race started with a signed pledge for a positive, issue-oriented campaign, it is becoming hard to tell which candidate is straying furthest from the pact.
One reason the race is so tight is that the candidates are vying for an open seat. Keenan, the elected state school superintendent for public instruction, initially prepared to run against the current representative, Republican Rick Hill. But Hill, citing an eyesight problem, surprised voters by announcing in August of 1999 he would retire after his current term. Hill, 53, had been criticized in local papers for suggesting that Keenan was not well prepared for office because she is single and has no children. Now Keenan faces Rehberg, a Montana rancher, former lieutenant governor and 1996 U.S. Senate candidate who, like Keenan, served six years in Montana's legislature.
Several early polls gave Keenan a narrow edge in the race: a September survey gave her a 5-point lead. But there are some indications Rehberg may now be the one with a slight lead. The campaigns' internal polling shows the lead flip-flopping, and a mid-October Great Falls Tribune poll put Rehberg up by eight points -- though within the margin of error. Both sides were skeptical of those results and Rehberg campaign staff said they still consider the race a dead heat. An Oct. 25 Montana State University poll showed Rehberg with a 2-point lead, well within the 5-point margin of error.
Rehberg, however, appears to have pulled ahead in fundraising. Though the Oct. 18 Federal Election Committee filing showed Rehberg had raised just $114,936 more than Keenan, the Republican has been staging something of a comeback. Three weeks ago the margin was only $34,586 and earlier in the campaign Keenan had the financial edge. Rehberg has spent more than Keenan, and since July 1 he has out-raised her by roughly $400,000.
As for the positive campaign pact, negative tones emerged with a Rehberg mailing in September touting his support for banning Playboy magazine from public school libraries. He denounced Keenan for taking the opposite stance. Keenan argued that as school superintendent she was constitutionally prevented from banning books and magazines. She accused Rehberg of misrepresenting her record and breaking their clean-campaign pledge. In a letter to Rehberg, she fired back, saying Montanans "expect more from this campaign than the typical political mudslinging that dominated your '96 Senate campaign."
The negative campaigning has spilled into the candidates' numerous debates. One newspaper described their Oct. 18 meeting as a "slam fest," during which Rehberg said Keenan had distorted his voting record and was not forthcoming about leftover money from her previous campaigns. At another debate in Helena, Keenan, citing the deterioration to negative campaigning, gave Rehberg a "C-" and herself a "C" for integrity. In Missoula she said the campaign should not be about "tearing somebody else down to build yourself up." Still, the attacks have not gotten personal -- perhaps in deference to the Hill controversy -- and have mostly been confined to disputes about the candidates' voting records in the state legislature.
Despite some combative moments, the debates have allowed Rehberg and Keenan to delineate their stances on many issues. With 16 debates scheduled across the state, the close race is not suffering from a lack of exposure. Rehberg has touted his opposition to 'big government,' the marriage and estate taxes, abortion and expanded gun control. He has also tried to tie himself to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who appears to have Montana well in hand. Rehberg supports privatization of Social Security, increased military spending and a national missile defense system.
Keenan has consistently advocated expanding education spending while opposing school vouchers. She is against Social Security privatization and supports including prescription drug coverage in Medicare. Keenan also says she approves of tapping Montana's unused oil and gas sources, but not oil exploration in Montana's Rocky Mountain Front or in Alaska. In a break with her party's leadership, Keenan opposes any further expansion of federal gun control laws.
The independent nature of Montana voters and the state's reduction after the 1990 census to a single House seat could best explain why the race is such a toss-up. Hints of any favorable Rehberg trends must be weighed against the fact that the Big Sky state has only 885,000 residents that are neatly split as Democratic-leaning in the mountainous west, and conservative in the plains of the east. No longer can each side of the state predictably elect its own representative.
Furthermore, conservative leanings in the state are balanced by the independence of the voters. Bush may be running strong and the GOP may control the state House, Senate and governorship, but in 1992 Montanans elected a Republican governor and a Democratic president while giving 26 percent of their votes to Ross Perot. Likewise, the state has sent only one woman to Congress in its history: independent-minded Montanans sent Jeannette Rankin -- one of Nancy Keenan's heroes - to Washington in 1916 to become Congress' first female member.