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From his Montana ranch, a retired lawmaker in a crowded House race is angling for a comeback


BILLINGS, Mont. — From a ranch in one of America’s largest and newest congressional districts, where agriculture and Republicans dominate, a retired six-term Montana lawmaker and grandfather is taking an unlikely path in search of a political comeback.

Former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, 68, is more than a decade removed from a failed U.S. Senate bid.

Now in a crowded field for an open seat without a clear frontrunner, he’s raised little money, hasn’t shown up much on the campaign trail and skipped the only broadcast debate leading up to Tuesday’s Republican primary.

Rehberg jumped into the race after firebrand conservative incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale dropped out amid clashes with party leaders.

His opponents suggest Rehberg’s time has passed. And he’s been vastly outspent by opponent Troy Downing, the state’s insurance commissioner, whose donations and loans to his own campaign equal the campaign chests of the other candidates combined.

Election to the House has historically offered Montana politicians a springboard to higher office including U.S. Senate, governor and the White House Cabinet. The district was created following the 2020 Census when population growth earned Montana a second seat in the House.

During an interview at his house on the outskirts of Billings, Montana’s largest city, Rehberg repeatedly held up a book by former Trump administration Interior Secretary David Barnhardt. But he told The Associated Press that unlike former President Donald Trump or Rosendale — who drew backlash for helping oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — he’s not a “bomb thrower.”

“If that’s what the people of Montana want, I’m not it,” Rehberg said.

“I want to work within the system,” he added. “And I don’t think that throwing bombs is the best way.”

Rehberg cited his grandchildren and the chance to make a difference in their lives as his motivation for running. He might also be seeking to rehabilitate his image after his bruising last race, said Montana State University political scientist Eric Raile.

“The 2012 U.S. Senate election against Jon Tester was a rough one,” Raile said.

The congressional district sprawls across across more than 100,000 square miles (260,000 square kilometers) of mostly open space from the North Dakota border to Helena. Its voters are overwhelmingly white. About 7% are Native American.

Rehberg, Downing and state schools Superintendent Elsie Arntzen have infused their campaigns with hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal loans as they compete in a seven-way competition that includes state Senate President Pro Tempore Ken Bogner and former state Rep. Joel Krautter, who is backed by a former Republican governor.

Downing, whose loans top $1 million, has also benefited from almost $500,000 in spending on his behalf by a Washington, D.C.-area political group, the Defend American Jobs SuperPAC, that’s funded largely by California-based donors, federal election data shows. He told the AP that he wouldn’t join the conservative Freedom Caucus, as Rosendale did.

“I don’t ever want to be in a position where I am representing a caucus rather than my constituents,” he said.

Arntzen is perhaps the most conservative of the candidates in Montana’s primary.

“Recognizing who Montana is right now means that we are based on Christian faith, we are based on freedoms, we are based very much on local government control and not a top down, heavy mandate,” said Arntzen, who opposes transgender girls participating in girls’ athletics.

Rehberg is optimistic Montana residents will remember him despite his long absence from politics. Since his 2012 loss, Rehberg started and shuttered a string of fast food franchises and lost vision in one eye. His wife Jan — his sole campaign volunteer — drives him at night, Rehberg said.

“My philosophy hasn’t changed since I first ran in 1984. I’m the same person as when I first ran for office,” he said. “A little older.”

___

Hanson reported from Helena, Montana.



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