Jon Tester's one of the more popular Senators in the country and it looks like it's going to take a strong Republican to defeat him in 2012- but if Congressman Denny Rehberg or former Governor Marc Racicot does run the GOP lean of the state is going to make Tester's path to reelection difficult.
50% of Montana voters approve of the job Tester's doing to only 40% who disapprove. He meets with near universal popularity within his own party at an 87/6 approval spread and is also quite well liked by independents at 54/34. Tester's +10 net approval ranks him 7th out of 19 Senators up for reelection in 2012 that PPP has polled on since the beginning of August.
If Tester's 2012 opponent is one of the folks who have expressed the most interest in running so far- Steve Daines or Neil Livingstone- he will start out in a solid position. He leads Daines 48-37 and Livingstone 46-35 in hypothetical contests. Most notably he has an advantage of 30 points or greater among independents against each of them. Daines and Livingstone's numbers would likely improve with time of course- right now Daines is an unknown quantity to 76% of voters in the state and 85% say they know nothing about Livingstone.
If Rehberg or Racicot gets into the race though Tester's path would become a lot tougher. Rehberg seems the more likely foe and he's popular in the state with 49% of voters viewing him favorably to 37% with an unfavorable opinion. He leads Tester 48-46 in a hypothetical contest. Tester actually leads Rehberg by 10 points with independents and wins over 8% of Republicans while Rehberg takes only 6% of Democrats. But there are a whole lot more Republicans in Montana than Democrats and that fact gives Rehberg the overall lead.
More of a stretch as a possible 2012 Tester foe, but the strongest of the bunch, is former Governor Marc Racicot. His net favorability is +19 with 45% of voters seeing him favorably to only 26% with a negative opinion. Racicot leads Tester 49-42 in a possible contest. Racicot's made a lot of money in the private sector as a lobbyist since leaving office 10 years ago but if he was interested in a Senate contest Dan Coats' success in Indiana this year from a similar background is a model for him.
Ultimately the outcome of the Montana Senate race could come down to this: is Rehberg willing to give up what looks more and more like a House seat for life to run against a popular Senate incumbent in a race that would start out pretty much at even odds? He's got plenty of time yet to make that decision.
One thing's clear: he may have just sneaked by against an ethically challenged incumbent in a strongly Democratic year in his first election but that doesn't mean Tester's going to be a push over the second time around.
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