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What Happened?
Like I Was Sayin...
President Barack Obama lost Montana by 14 percentage points. He lost North Dakota by 19 percentage points. But U.S. Senate races in both states, which Republicans saw as easy pickups six months ago, went to Democrats. The question is why.

While Montanans are well known for splitting tickets, and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester enjoyed the advantage of incumbency, this election had all the makings of a statewide referendum on the president and his party. That’s what Tester’s opponent, six-term Congressman Denny Rehberg, ran on. And that was the problem. That was about all he ran on.

During the campaign, Rehberg’s camp and the third parties supporting him hammered home the same point: Tester is an Obama clone. The Montana Republican Party even set up a “Tester-Obama Watch” in which it sent out emails for about 50 consecutive days explaining their similarities.

Then there was the “95 percent.” Every Montanan heard it ad nauseam on their televisions. “Tester votes with Obama 95 percent of the time.” At the Senate debate in Kalispell, when each candidate was allowed to ask the other a question, Rehberg asked Tester – you guessed it – why he supports Obama.

He could have asked about the senator’s vote against capping bank swipe fees, which certainly makes it appear like he favors big banks over consumers. He could have hammered the incumbent about being the biggest recipient of lobbyist cash, which is an uncomfortable distinction. But it all came back to Obama.

Yes, there were other criticisms of Tester, but they were forgettable. And at the end of the campaign voters were left with a candidate, in Rehberg, who never fully etched out how he would represent the state if elected to Senate.

In contrast, Tester worked tirelessly to contrast himself with the president. He talked about specific legislation that would affect the Montana, such as his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. He barnstormed the state, glad-handing and holding rallies until Election Day. He sold himself as a farmer who – in what became his unofficial slogan – “always puts Montana first.”

If Tester’s win was somewhat surprising to Republicans, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp’s narrow victory was an utter shock.

Heitkamp, while likable and well known after serving as the state’s attorney general, had trailed GOP Rep. Rick Berg in just about every public poll leading up to the election.

Just last month, the state’s Republican Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley declared: “My prediction is it’s not going to be as close as people think it is right now.”

But it was, and then some.

You see, Berg fell into a similar trap that Rehberg did. He decided the race should be about something other than the candidates, other than what they would actually do in office. He decided to campaign against Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid instead of Heitkamp.

Berg warned that if Democrats held the Senate, which they did, there would be dire consequences for energy-producing states like North Dakota. Meanwhile, Heitkamp campaigned on local issues, such as flood control and affordable housing.

To be sure, Obama’s unpopularity hurt both Tester’s and Heitkamp’s chances, but Republicans’ narrow focus appears to have hurt them. It’s one thing to turn the race into a referendum and quite another to do so at the expense of defining what it is you stand for.

The majority of Montanans don’t like Obama. And the majority of North Dakotans don’t like Reid. That was clear long before the campaigns for Senate even began. Perhaps Rehberg’s and Berg’s time would have been better spent differentiating themselves from their opponents rather than their opponents’ leadership.

Because it’s clear that Republicans lost two races where they were given a substantial head start.
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