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Posted at 9:37 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana to run for Senate

By Aaron Blake

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) is set to announce that he will run for Senate, setting up a likely contest with Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2012.

The Republican congressman will make his plans known Saturday, a source with knowledge of those plans told The Fix. The news was first reported late Monday by Roll Call.

Rehberg represents the GOP's prized recruit in Montana, and he makes the race instantly competitive in a way that no other Republican would have. A recent poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed he and Tester in a statistical tie, with Rehberg at 48 percent and Tester at 46 percent.

Tester remains personally popular in the state, so it was key for Republicans to land a top contender to run against him. The two men had virtually identical approval ratings in the PPP poll.

Rehberg has often been mentioned as a candidate for higher office, and he has run for Senate once before, losing to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) by five points in 1996. He had the option in 2012 of running in the open governor's race but instead will challenge Tester.

The congressman, a rancher and former lieutenant governor who was elected to Congress in 2000, is the latest big-name Senate recruit for the GOP early in the cycle. The party already has candidates with statewide profiles running in Missouri, Nebraska and Virginia. All four states represent main targets for 2012, when the GOP has a good shot at retaking a Senate majority.

Rehberg's exit also frees up a House seat, and Democrats are likely to have a strong chance at a takeover. Despite its conservative leaning, the state has a history of electing Democrats, including both of its current Democratic senators and a Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer. And an open seat House race is anybody's ballgame.

Rehberg, on the other hand, routinely won by large margins -- very wide margins in 2006 and 2008, both bad years for Republicans nationally.

On the GOP side, Rehberg's entry into the Senate race could tempt the lone declared candidate, former lieutenant governor nominee Steve Daines, to shift his attention to running for Rehberg's statewide House seat.

Daines, an attorney, raised $225,000 during his first six weeks in the Senate race.

Former state Democratic Party chairman Dennis McDonald ran against Rehberg in 2010, losing badly.

By Aaron Blake  | February 1, 2011; 9:37 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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