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These Are the Dog Days for Rating Senate Races

File Photo
The fundamentals of the race between Sen. Jon Tester (above) and Rep. Denny Rehberg aren’t likely to change much over the next 15 months. The Montana contest is expected to be one of the closest of the 2012 cycle.

I can’t imagine anything short of a major scandal or a candidate exit from the race that would cause me to change my rating on the contest in the next six months — and quite possibly not until the final days before the election.

Sen. Jon Tester (D) raised $1.3 million last quarter to GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg’s $915,000. Tester ended June more than $800,000 ahead of Rehberg in cash on hand ($2.3 million to $1.5 million). But those figures don’t matter much.

Everyone knows that Tester and Rehberg will each raise enough money to be competitive and that the two Senate campaign committees — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — and outside nonparty groups will play big time in this relatively inexpensive media market.

So looking at fundraising here, one of the few quantitative measures of campaign performance and potential that we have, is meaningless.

Polling isn’t likely to be very helpful in Montana either.

A June survey by the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling found the race statistically tied — with Rehberg ahead of Tester by 2 points. A March survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research had a similar result: Tester led Rehberg by 1 point. Democratic and Republican insiders agree the race is close, will remain tight throughout the campaign and probably will finish tight, with one of the candidates winning by a point or two.

But what happens if a poll appears showing either Tester or Rehberg has blown open the race, pulling ahead by 8, 10 or 12 points? Won’t I rush to “move” the race then?

Probably not, unless there has been a fundamental shift in the contest that is otherwise apparent or unless the national landscape has moved so decisively that a dramatic move in the head-to-head ballot test is understandable.

In other words, my first reaction would be skepticism about the poll.

In politics, the fundamentals matter a great deal.

Tester won very narrowly (by less than a point) in 2006, a great Democratic year, when being a challenger against a veteran incumbent was an asset. This time, the political environment will be different, though we don’t exactly know how.

Now Tester has a record, and he faces another well-known Republican statewide elected official who has won in both good and bad years for the GOP.

Tester clearly has a difficult race on his hands, but we won’t know whether he will survive until voters start focusing on the contest during fall 2012.

There will be plenty of yelling and screaming in Montana between now and next summer. Some of it may actually involve important developments and resonate with the voters. But much of it will be little more than spin, making little impression on the voters and telling us almost nothing about who will win.

Unless and until the fundamentals change, Montana is likely to sit right where it is now, all the way through next summer and possibly right to election night.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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