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As Montana goes, so might go the rest of the nation in the Big Money 2012 election.

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Sick of the presidential race yet? What makes it even more annoying is that they are starting earlier and earlier. Consider Tim Pawlenty — seemingly competent guy, ran an entire state. He’s already quit the race — five months before anybody takes a vote that actually counts.

Oh, it’s gotten nutty. For a preview of what may be the most interesting race of 2012, the New York Times sent a scribe our way to check on the Montana U.S. Senate race. In 2006, Democrat Jon Tester beat incumbent Conrad Burns and tipped the balance of power in D.C. Campaign watchers say there is no scenario for Republicans to retake control of the Senate without a win by Republican Denny Rehberg, the state’s Congressman.

And what a fitting place for such a struggle — the very state where, at the turn of the 20th century, mining magnates were literally buying Senate seats. It’s been home to skeptical, independent-minded voters ever since, and they do seem to like Tester and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. But the Tea Party has some pull, too, as the anti-government sentiment runs deep.

The most fascinating part of the equation is how true Montana will be to its values. Under new campaign laws, unlimited, untraceable donations are going to be the wild card; already two-thirds of contributions to both Tester and Rehberg are coming from outside Montana. If you happen to hold a license to our public airwaves in Montana, get ready for the mother of all TV ad windfalls.

In the same edition of the Times, Gov. Schweitzer wrote about his state’s success during the recession. “I like to say we run government like a ranch. In ranching — my old job — you either pinch pennies or go bellyup. We do the same in government.

Perhaps Washington can try it.”

And Tester recently told a radio host that “working together is what built this place when the homesteaders came here. Working together is a Montana way of life, it’s a Montana value and we need to take that back to Washington, D.C. Start working for proactive solutions instead of trying to find excuses to vote against stuff.”

By preaching common sense and traditional Montana values, leaders like Tester and Schweitzer are framing our current politics within the larger stories of Montana and America. Stories like that resonate with voters.

Tester will need every scrap of folksy wisdom he can muster. The big-money interests are coming to Montana to tell a different tale, and they’ll have a very big megaphone.

Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.

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