GOP Rep. Steve Daines mulling Montana Senate bid once more

Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is seriously considering a Senate run, denied that a seat in the upper chamber would necessarily be a promotion.

He already represents the entire state in his at-large Montana district and said most of the action in Washington takes place in the House.

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“Some folks have affectionately referred to the Senate as ‘the rest of them over there.’ The House is where a lot of the action is at. I’m truly enjoying what I am doing here on the House side ... the Senate is not called the upper chamber as much as it used to be,” Daines said when asked if he had higher political aspirations. 

The freshman Republican insists he has not produced a timeline for a final decision on whether to run for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Still, he briefly ran for Senate once before. And Republicans in the state point out that 2014 may be his best chance to win, given that the last open Senate race in the state was in the late ’70s.

Last year, Daines easily won his race to replace former Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who unsuccessfully attempted a Senate campaign to unseat Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

Daines initially announced a bid for Senate as well. But he switched over to the House race in 2011 after Rehberg announced his campaign, attempting to avoid a “divisive” primary.

“It wasn’t so much for me a Senate vs. a House seat,” he said about switching races. “It was the fact that I wanted to make sure we had men and women serving Montana that best align and best represent what the people think.” 

If he ultimately decides to enter the race, his at-large district gives him experience running statewide. 

His district houses more constituents than any other and ranks second largest in terms of area, behind only Alaska.

Last election cycle, he campaigned across Montana in his pickup truck, touting fiscal conservatism, Second Amendment rights and a balanced approach to natural resources. 

“By the way, I was driving a pickup truck before Scott Brown made it cool in Massachusetts,” he said. “In Montana, a pickup truck is a way of life.” 

References to trucks and the outdoors are common for Montana candidates of both parties. Daines’s office is adorned with busts of deer, buffalo and sprawling pictures of the Montana landscape. 

He even described the grill guard on his truck that, he said, is necessary during campaigns where a candidate can log nearly 100,000 miles in animal country. 

“I think the score for me was, grill guard: four. Deer: zero,” he said. 

Though his district is sprawling, Montana politics are relatively small. 

The decision for Daines and other Republicans to enter the race could ultimately hinge on Brian Schweitzer, who is seen as Democrats’ best hope of retaining the red-state seat if he runs. He and Daines have butted heads before. 

“They talk about six degrees of separation in this world,” Daines said. “I think in Montana, it is one or two degrees no matter where you go.”

Daines broke into Montana politics with his 2007 “Give It Back” campaign, in which he urged then-Gov. Schweitzer to return to taxpayers half of the $1 billion surplus that Montana was running at the time. 

Daines clashed again with Schweitzer in the 2008 governor’s race. He joined the Republican ticket as the GOP’s pick for lieutenant governor alongside gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown. 

The GOP lost badly, but Brown has remained in Daines’s camp. Brown told The Hill he will endorse Daines if he runs.

“You learn a lot about a person when you run as a team on the ticket for governor and lieutenant governor,” Brown said.

Former Rep. Rick Hill (R-Mont.), who lost a gubernatorial election last year, also said he is actively recruiting Daines. 

Hill and Daines became intimately acquainted during the 2012 campaign, when both candidates — Daines for Congress, Hill for governor —attended a host of Lincoln Day dinners, a proving ground in Montana politics.

He declined to reveal any conversations with Daines. But both supporters speculated Daines likely will not enter the race if another top-tier GOP candidate steps in. 

“I think he represents a new generation, which I think is really important,” Hill said, adding that he respected other potential candidates.

“It is very important for Republicans to embrace a new generation of Republicans. A lot of the people being talked about ... are kind of old warhorses. They are fighting some of the old battles.”

But Democrats see his rapid ascent as a cudgel. He has already received comparisons to former Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.), who entered the 2012 North Dakota Senate race as a freshman and lost. 

Other potential GOP candidates include Rehberg and former Gov. Marc Racicot, who has polled ahead of Daines in early surveys. Two lesser-known candidates have already entered the race. 

Montana is coming off its most expensive Senate race in history. Daines insists voters are still burned out from last year, and he is in no hurry to announce a bid for the seat.  

“I think campaigns are too long already to begin with,” he said. “So we are just staying focused on what we are doing here, and we will cross that bridge if and when it comes.”