Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who won a hard-fought, close contest Tuesday over Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, said Wednesday it’s time for Congress to put aside partisanship and tackle the nation’s pressing problems.
Tester, speaking in Great Falls shortly after he was declared the winner, said those problems include the federal deficit, taxes, the economy – and the tidal wave of “relentless, secretive political spending” seen in his race and many others across the nation.
“This is larger than me,” he said in an interview. “The outside money that’s coming in (to politics) is bad for democracy.
“We’ve got to get some transparency in this process, at a minimum … so we know who’s footing the bill. It shouldn’t be about someone who has a ton of money, trying to buy an election.”
Tester, 56, a farmer from Big Sandy, led by 16,000 votes over Rehberg late Wednesday, with some votes yet to be counted in Yellowstone, Silver Bow, Ravalli and Flathead counties.
Tester had 48.5 percent of the vote, while Rehberg had nearly 45 percent. Libertarian Dan Cox of Hamilton carried a significant 6.5 percent, one of the highest showings by a Libertarian in a statewide race.
Rehberg, 57, Montana’s sole congressman since 2001, conceded the race Wednesday morning, issuing a statement that said it had been “an honor to serve the people of Montana.”
“The voters of our state have spoken and I respect their decision,” he said. “Senator Tester and I share an abiding love for Montana and America, a value which transcends political party or disagreements on matters of policy.”
Tester also complimented Rehberg on a “well-fought race,” and said he knew Rehberg would agree that the nation faces big challenges that need to be addressed.
“Despite our differences, we belong to the greatest state and the greatest nation in the world,” Tester said. “We owe thanks to Congressman Rehberg. He has spent a career in public service.”
Rehberg, a rancher from Billings, has been a key figure in Montana politics for more than 30 years, also holding office as state representative and lieutenant governor.
Tester said he’s hopeful Congress will start acting on plans to reduce the nation’s debt and federal deficit and reform the tax code, to make it simpler and more fair.
“I think there is a nucleus of people back in (Washington), D.C. who are willing to do it,” he said. “The bottom line is … when we deal with that in a common-sense way, I think it will help the economy.”
Tester also said he’d like his wilderness/jobs bill to pass Congress, either as part of an Interior spending package this year or a stand-alone bill next year. The measure, stalled in Congress since 2009, would create new wilderness in western Montana forests while identifying new acreage for logging.
Yet Tester spoke most forcefully Wednesday about shining a light on the river of money spent on his contest and many others by so-called outside and “dark” money, by groups that often don’t have to disclose or detail their donors or expenditures.
Observers estimated that outside groups spent $30 million or more on the Tester-Rehberg matchup, including at least half that amount by nonprofit groups that can keep their donors secret.