HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A new poll shows U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, are nearly even in the race for the Tester's Senate seat, while Sen. Max Baucus' approval rating has plunged, apparently over his role in the federal health care bill.
The poll found 46 percent of registered voters favored Tester, a Democrat, while 45 percent favored Rehberg with 9 percent undecided.
Lee Enterprises of Montana commissioned Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the telephone poll of 625 people last week. The sampling error margin was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Rehberg, who has been Montana's lone House member since 2001, announced last month that he would challenge Tester in the 2012 election that is 20 months away. Tester is in his first term in the Senate after narrowly defeating incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006.
The Rehberg-Tester battle is expected to be one of the most-watched Senate races in the country as Republicans try to win back control. The Democrats hold a 53-47 majority, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Polling, said that because the race is a toss-up, the outcome likely will depend on the economy and the quality of each candidate's campaign.
An improving economy will likely favor Tester, while a lagging economy would benefit Rehberg, Coker said.
The poll also found Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has a 60 percent job approval rating, Tester has the approval by 50 percent, 48 percent approve of Rehberg. Baucus' approval rating is 38 percent, down from 67 percent in May 2009.
"Baucus really took it on the chin," Coker said. "Tester was just a vote (for the health care law). Baucus was a ringleader. Nothing could have been done without him using his power and influence."
Two years ago, Schweitzer had a 57 percent job-approval rating, Rehberg was at 56 percent and Tester at 52 percent.
In other poll results, 57 percent of those surveyed said the federal health care law should be repealed while 34 percent said it should be kept and 9 percent were undecided. However, only 45 percent support the efforts of state lawmakers to block implementation of the federal law, and 43 percent say they oppose those efforts. Twelve percent were undecided.
The federal health care law — authored in part by Baucus, a Democrat, and signed by President Barack Obama a year ago — aims to extend health insurance coverage to most Americans through expanded government coverage and subsidies for private insurance. It requires all Americans to maintain their current coverage or buy new health insurance by 2014 and doesn't allow insurers to reject coverage of pre-existing conditions.
The poll also found that 53 percent of Montanans would encourage more oil, gas and mineral development by having less strict environmental laws, while 37 percent said they opposed such efforts.
Sixty-two percent said they supported state efforts to encourage development of renewable energy and energy conservation, even if the new energy sources might increase utility costs for consumers. Twenty-nine percent said they opposed such efforts and 18 percent were undecided.
The poll also asked what people thought about amending the state's constitutional guarantee to a clean and healthful environment so that the guarantee also includes "an economically productive environment." Voters were split, with 42 percent supporting such a change, 40 percent opposed and 18 percent undecided.