Denny Rehberg
FILE - In this file photo taken March 8, 2007, Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., questions the Supreme Court's 2008 fiscal budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington. Rehberg had never faced a primary challenger in his five terms as Montana's congressmen. This year, he faced two, including a self-billed "constitutional conservative" who tried to use the tea party movement and Rehberg's insider status as levers to oust the incumbent. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

HELENA (AP) -- He was never in any real danger of losing, but political observers say the GOP primary should serve as a wake-up call for Denny Rehberg all the same.

Rehberg, who is seeking his sixth term as Montana's sole congressman, had never faced a primary challenger since he was first elected in 2001. This year, he faced two -- including a self-billed "constitutional conservative" who tried to use the tea party movement and Rehberg's insider status as levers to oust the incumbent.

"I think the fact that he's attracted several opponents in the primary indicates that he's not as solid as he was two years ago," University of Montana political science professor Chris Muste said.

Rehberg won 75 percent of the Republican vote on Tuesday night -- some 96,819 votes -- but he also came away sounding humble and with a healthy respect for the party's far-right voters' anger toward government leaders in Washington.

"The tea party movement should not and cannot be ignored. Any politician that makes light of their anger and concern is foolish," Rehberg said.

Mark French won about 20 percent of the vote by labeling himself as further right than Rehberg and painting the incumbent as a Washington insider. French said early Wednesday that he was convinced that the biggest factor in Rehberg's win was the power of the incumbency and Rehberg's name recognition.

If he'd had more time and money to get his message out, French said he would have won.

"If a guy can come out of nowhere and win the number of votes that I won, with next to no money in comparison -- he's got to see this is a popular message and he better start embracing it or he's going to lose," French said of Rehberg.

The third candidate, Montana State University-Billings marketing professor A.J. Otjen, won just under 6 percent of the vote.

Rehberg, 54, said this primary was not a sign that his position is slipping. Rather, it's a reflection of voter anger against incumbents and his race being on top of the ticket this election cycle, he said.

"There's growing unrest out there," Rehberg said. "I'm a way of sending a message to Washington, D.C., and there aren't a lot of choices when you look at the ballot."

The tea party movement in Montana is still loosely organized, Muste said. Many people now disgruntled with incumbents are focused on the 2012 election and the chance to take the governor's office and Jon Tester's U.S. Senate seat from the Democrats, he said.

Rehberg now faces Democratic nominee Dennis McDonald in the Nov. 2 general election, and the challenger is not wasting any time in going on the attack. McDonald, the former state party chairman from 2005 until last year, came out of the primary Tuesday blasting the Republican as an ineffective politician who hasn't accomplished much during his tenure in Congress.

"He's drawn a big goose egg for Montana," McDonald said.

Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps hit back with a statement questioning McDonald's character and his "association" with organized crime figure-turned mob informant Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno. McDonald represented Fratianno when McDonald was an attorney in California, and he has said he helped the mobster turn state's evidence against others.

The Democratic nominee faces a tough challenge trying to unseat Rehberg, said University of Montana political science chairman James Lopach. For McDonald to have a shot at winning, he has to make a credible argument that Rehberg has forgotten the people at home and become a Washington insider, or Rehberg would have to be embroiled in scandal.

The primary also served as a coming-out for Tyler Gernant, the 28-year-old Missoula attorney who polled second to McDonald in the Democratic primary. Gernant, a former aide to Sen. Max Baucus, received good exposure in the hard-fought campaign.

"I think now he should drop back and run in a lower-level race and cut his teeth. Later, he should be able to take the training wheels off and run for a higher office," Lopach said of Gernant.

With all the precincts reporting, McDonald ended up with 24,245 votes, more than 38 percent. Gernant was second with 24 percent of the vote, followed by Great Falls paralegal Melinda Gopher with 21 percent and Billings real estate broker Sam Ranking with 16 percent.

Full Coverage

For more information about the candidates and races, as well as news about election results as they come in, visit the Chronicle's 2010 Primary Election Page.

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