Sen. Steve Daines knows the ski slopes, residents

Sen. Steve Daines knows the ski slopes, residents
© Alex Bolton

BIG SKY, Mont. — Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesThe 14 GOP senators who voted against Trump’s immigration framework Week ahead: Lawmakers weigh border patrol access on federal lands Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA MORE, Montana’s tech-savvy junior senator, knows he sometimes lives in a bubble — like when he’s riding on a high-speed chairlift equipped with heated seats and a blue-tinted wind shield, at the Big Sky ski resort.

Daines (R), 55, grew up 40 miles north of Big Sky in Bozeman, an old farming town that has become a magnet for wealthy tech entrepreneurs. He started skiing Big Sky at age 11 when it first opened, in 1973.

It was a far different place then, before the management put in the high-speed, Austrian-built tram to the peak and multimillion-dollar ski chalets popped up along the trails.

Daines is an expert skier who knows how to find fresh powder close to the trees that many other skiers avoid for fear of getting sideswiped by branches. The senator gave this reporter a tour of Big Sky over the Presidents Day weekend, providing tips on how to dodge the sharp rocks that lurk under Montana’s fluffy powder.

Locals joke about how different Bozeman and its environs are from the rest Montana.   

Daines sometimes calls it “Boze-Angeles,” a comment on the wealthy out-of-staters who come to enjoy the Montana way of life.

“There are probably more billionaires here per square mile than anywhere in the country,” Daines said on one lift ride in frigid conditions, sweeping his arm across a vista that included the private Yellowstone Club, a 15,000-acre private community and ski resort on a neighboring mountain.

It’s a place with rugged mountains, dense forests, stunning cliffs and crystalline rivers.

Many of his colleagues are happy to fly out to help Daines raise money if it means they can fit in a little skiing or fishing on the side.

Daines plans to host a ski weekend in March, which Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe siren of Baton Rouge Interior plan to use drilling funds for new projects met with skepticism The 14 GOP senators who voted against Trump’s immigration framework MORE (R-Alaska) and John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenSenate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA GOP anxious with Trump on trade GOP lawmakers to Trump: Don't fire Mueller MORE (R-N.D.), both fellow skiers, plan to attend.

Daines, a father of four who has been married to his wife, Cindy, for 31 years, will also do a fly-fishing event later in the year. The 1992 hit film “A River Runs Through It,” directed by Robert Redford, was filmed on the Gallatin River, which runs along the road from Bozeman to Big Sky.

Daines in many ways reflects what locals call “new Montana.”

He earned his degree in chemical engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman before embarking on a 13-year career with Procter & Gamble — including a six-year stint in China.

Working for his father’s construction firm in his mid-30s, he helped an up-and-coming technology firm, RightNow Technologies, founded by Rep. Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteDem invokes Trump in pushing for bill to protect journalists GOP lawmaker who assaulted reporter to lead workshop on communications Spicer calls on Republicans to return Wynn donations from 'this cycle' MORE (R-Mont.), build a new headquarters in southwest Bozeman.

Daines later joined that tech firm, which became Bozeman’s largest employer, and did well when it was sold to Oracle Corp. for $1.5 billion in 2011. He’s an ardent advocate of technology and one of the Senate’s most enthusiastic adopters of new social media, such as Snapchat.

It’s something he has in common with the tech heads who have flocked to southwest Montana in recent years. The Yellowstone Club’s members include Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake and Google founder Eric Schmidt.

Facebook founder Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergOvernight Tech: Dems turn up the heat on Equifax | Trump's science budget | Inside Rupert Murdoch's fight with Facebook | Cyber experts identify Olympics malware Rupert Murdoch pressured Facebook for changes to help news publishers: report Overnight Tech: GOP bill would bar agencies from using Chinese tech | How Russian accounts used Tumblr during the election | Warren, Equifax spar over breach claims | Dem worries about tech addiction | New lobster emoji MORE also recently bought a home in the area, Daines notes.

Condominiums in the Yellowstone Club range from $4.9 million to $13.5 million, and custom residences cost between $6.2 million and $19.5 million.

Only property owners who pay an initiation fee of $300,000 and annual dues can ski Yellowstone’s 2,700 acres. Daines skis Yellowstone Club area once a year but isn’t much of a fan of what he calls “private powder.”

He prefers to ski with the regulars at Big Sky, who recognize him despite a ski helmet and dark tinted goggles.

The long-time local in Daines chuckles at billionaires playacting as Montana cowboys, but he’s happy they’ve moved to his state.

“God bless them for creating jobs,” Daines said.

He wants to share the economic miracle of Bozeman and neighboring Madison County with the rest of the state by promoting lower taxes, less regulation and free trade.

Daines took a multicounty tour of the state over the recess, visiting White Sulphur Springs and Kalispell.

He visits all of Montana’s 56 counties every two years, a ritual he calls “the full Grassley,” after Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Congress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees MORE (R), who has a long-standing tradition of visiting each of Iowa’s 99 counties every year.

Daines’s advocacy for small businesses and free trade have put him at odds with party leaders at times.

He and Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonTrump spars with GOP lawmakers on steel tariffs Overnight Regulation: Trump unveils budget | Sharp cuts proposed for EPA, HHS | Trump aims to speed environmental reviews | Officials propose repealing most of methane leak rule Trump budget seeks savings through ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Wis.), who also had a career in business before politics, threatened to derail the tax-reform effort last year because they felt it didn’t do enough for small businesses. They subsequently struck a deal with the GOP leadership to increase the deduction for pass-through entities to 20 percent, bringing tax rates for small businesses closer to rates for large corporations.

More recently he has pressured President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE on trade policy, leading a group of 25 senators on a letter urging him to reengage on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the massive trade deal shortly after taking office.

Daines acknowledged that the “president’s probably not going to be happy with me,” but he views trade as critical to Montana’s economy.

The former House member claimed a victory in the fall when he helped secure an agreement between, a major Chinese retailer, and the Montana Stockgrowers Association for the future purchase of $200 million in Montana-raised beef.

Daines sees improved trade relations with China as a key to future prosperity.

He plans to lead his third congressional delegation trip to China in May to meet with political and business leaders such as Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba. Daines wants to send a stern foreign policy message to North Korea by taking his colleagues to Dandong, a city just across the Yalu River from North Korea — an unusual destination for members of Congress.

Daines, a member of the Appropriations Committee’s state and foreign operations subcommittee, wants to make it clear to Chinese and North Korean leaders that he and his colleagues are committed to enforcing sanctions against the rogue state.