Montana's candidates for Senate are not shying away from the campaign dollars they've received from out-of-state environmental groups and oil, gas and mining interests.
But that hasn't stopped Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) from accusing each other of pandering to the special interests that have bankrolled their campaigns.
Rehberg in the third quarter this year raised more than $87,000 from oil, gas, mining and energy interests, most of it from outside the state, according to his most recent campaign finance reports. Top donors include executives for Texas-based Mewbourne Oil Co., Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Minnesota-based Northern Oil & Gas Inc., as well as political action committees representing coal, pipeline and oilfield service companies.
And while Tester took in at least $8,000 from energy companies over the same period of time, he raised nearly $20,000 through the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group that opposes an oil sands pipeline through Montana that has become a political flashpoint in the race.
Tester has raised more money than any other candidate this cycle from LCV's GiveGreen campaign, taking in just under $80,000 this cycle.
While the money is a small percentage of the candidates' total fundraising this cycle -- Tester has raised just over $5 million, almost double Rehberg's take, according to the Center for Responsive Politics -- the money has become a talking point in a tight race that could determine which party controls the Senate.
A Democratic-affiliated poll this month showed Rehberg maintaining a 2-point edge over Tester, while a Montana Chamber of Commerce-commissioned poll a week ago showed Tester leading by 5 points.
Rehberg this week continued to hammer Tester for agreeing to, but then cancelling, a speech he was scheduled to give last week at a New York City fundraiser for LCV, which Rehberg called an "extremist group" (E&ENews PM, Dec. 9).
"Why did you cancel your speech? Did it have something to do with the pressure back home and the fact that ultimately what's driving Montana's economy in many ways, not entirely, but in many ways is oil, gas and coal development in eastern Montana?" he told E&E Daily. "You're either going to support the jobs in eastern Montana that are paying the bills ... for a lot of the things you want in western Montana, or are you going to side with environmentalists?"
Rehberg's criticism comes months after a Montana State University poll found that 64 percent on Montanans support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would offer new opportunities for oil producers in the Bakken oil field in northeast Montana.
The Obama administration this fall announced it was postponing its decision on the project until after the November 2012 elections, a move that drew criticism both from Rehberg and Tester.
Rehberg responded with language in a House payroll tax holiday bill that would give the Obama administration two months to make a decision on the project, a move that angered Democratic leaders and the White House. Upon the bill's passage last night, Rehberg implicitly challenged Tester to prove he supports the project.
"I hope all the senators who claim to support these jobs will find the courage to stand up to the party bosses and do the right thing for Montanans," he said.
Tester said he supports approving the Keystone XL pipeline as long as the project respects private property rights, has an oil spill contingency plan and is built to high safety standards. He blamed Rehberg for being in the pockets of Big Oil, which is his top campaign donor, according to CRP.
Tester's campaign blamed a scheduling conflict for his absence from last week's New York fundraiser. But the senator said he embraces LCV's support, even if he does not agree with all of the group's positions.
"I don't agree with my wife all the time, and so the truth is we've been married 35 years," he said.
A host of differences
As the campaign rolls on, Tester and Rehberg continue to distinguish themselves on a host of natural resources issues, including U.S. EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases, subsidies for oil and gas companies, national monuments and wilderness policy, among others.
Tester, whose top contributors include lawyers, lobbyists and bankers, said he does not allow money to influence his decisionmaking.
"I'm going to do what's best to create jobs for Montana and make this country as energy secure as possible," he said. "If the renewable energy resources ticks off Big Oil, so be it. If a pipeline through eastern Montana ticks off the conservation folks, so be it. I have to make the call after I do my research on what's best for Montana and what's best for the country."
On the public lands front, Tester has gone on the offensive.
He has blasted Rehberg for supporting a bill that would exempt the Department of Homeland Security from environmental laws while patrolling Montana's northern border, a move that drew attack ads from a new sportsmen's group affiliated with conservation interests (E&E Daily, Oct. 26).
Tester this week again attacked Rehberg for opposing his "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," a widely supported bill that would create new wilderness and require timber harvests in Montana. Tester is pushing to include the measure in Congress' fiscal 2012 omnibus appropriations bill.
"Take a look at my Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which, by the way, he has opposed since before he even read it," Tester said. "That's about jobs. That's about putting folks to work in the forests with chain saws. It's about giving mills a consistent volume of lumber to keep them open."
Rehberg has said in the past that Tester's bill was crafted behind closed doors to please the environmental groups that have bankrolled his campaign. He said a majority of Montanans oppose the bill.
The fate of the bill could have significant implications in next year's election.