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Pence seeks to boost Daines in critical Montana Senate race

Pence seeks to boost Daines in critical Montana Senate race
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BELGRADE, Mont. — The Big Sky Country got the vice presidential treatment on Monday as the White House threw its muscle behind Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine Indigenous groups post billboards urging senators to confirm Deb Haaland Kennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' MORE (R) in a race that could decide control of the Senate in November.

Vice President Pence joined a state GOP rally here as the haze from west coast wildfires periodically obscured the mountain range in the distance.

Pence's speech largely mirrored one he delivered earlier in the day in Wisconsin, though he spent a large chunk urging support for down-ballot candidates. He praised Daines's record, urged voters to back him for a second term, and hailed him as a "man of faith" and a "fighter for everything that makes Montana great."

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"A vote for Steve BullockSteve BullockOvernight Health Care: CDC calls for schools to reopen with precautions | Cuomo faces rising scrutiny over COVID-19 nursing home deaths | Biden officials move to begin rescinding Medicaid work requirements Montana governor lifts state mask mandate Lobbying world MORE is a vote for the agenda of the radical left," Pence warned.

Daines is running against two-term Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign in the Democratic primary. Bullock, a centrist Democrat who has been bolstered by a positive approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, joined the race in March after he initially resisted advances from Democratic leaders to challenge Daines.

"I am now Schumer’s No. 1 target for defeat," Daines said, referencing Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerA Biden stumble on China? First Black secretary of Senate sworn in Republican Ohio Senate candidate calls on GOP rep to resign over impeachment vote MORE (D-N.Y.). Daines argued that the path to control of the upper chamber goes through Montana.

Hundreds of people packed tightly together for an outdoor rally at the Big Yellow Barn. Many wore red "Keep America Great" hats, but only a handful wore masks, and the coronavirus pandemic largely went unmentioned outside of Pence's usual remarks defending the administration's response.

But Montana's electoral significance this year rests more with the Senate race than the presidential race. Daines largely focused his speech on painting Bullock as too liberal and tying him to nationally prominent members of the Democratic Party like Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden coronavirus relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority Some Republicans say proxy voting gives advantage to Democrats Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress MORE (D-Calif.) and vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisElla Emhoff, inauguration designer join forces on knitwear collaboration Who is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important? In America, women are frontliners of change MORE (D-Calif.).

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Republicans hold 53 Senate seats, but 22 of those senators are up for reelection, and incumbents in Arizona, North Carolina, Maine, Iowa and Colorado face stiff challenges.

Montana has something of an independent streak when it comes to state-wide races, and it finds itself at the center of discussion over which party will seize control of the Senate for a second straight cycle. Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Senate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill Democrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic MORE (D) won reelection by roughly 18,000 votes in 2018 in a state that Republicans targeted heavily and Trump visited multiple times.

The president has yet to visit Montana in 2020 as he focuses more on presidential battleground states. But Pence's presence was a nod to the significance of Daines's reelection in securing a GOP majority should the Trump administration win a second term.

"Some people think Montana is a purple state because we've shown we can elect Dems," said Barrett Kaiser, a long-time Montana Democratic strategist who is not directly affiliated with the Bullock campaign.

"But that's not right — we are a ruby-red state that tends to vote for the person you want to have a beer with," he continued. "So if Trump is under-performing here, of all places, it could be a bellwether for the rest of the country, in particular those battleground states that are 'rural.'"

Trump won Montana by 20 percentage points in 2016 and is expected to handily carry the state again in November, but the Senate race is shaping up to be much closer.

A poll conducted from Aug. 30-Sept. 5 by AARP-Montana showed Daines leading by 1 percentage point. The Cook Political Report rates the Montana Senate race as a toss-up.

"I'd say the race is knotted up with perhaps a slight advantage to Daines, as he is the incumbent," said David Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University.

But Parker added that it's "absolutely possible" that Bullock could win the Senate race while Trump wins the state's electoral votes, noting Montana's history of electing Democrats to statewide office despite being solidly red for presidential elections.

Pence's visit was initially overshadowed by a bit of controversy. The vice president was slated to attend a fundraiser hosted by a couple that had shared posts related to the QAnon conspiracy theory. The fundraiser was quietly scrapped, and Pence only addressed the state party before returning to Washington.

Montana has multiple state-wide races on the ballot in November. Gubernatorial candidate Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteOvernight Health Care: CDC calls for schools to reopen with precautions | Cuomo faces rising scrutiny over COVID-19 nursing home deaths | Biden officials move to begin rescinding Medicaid work requirements Montana governor lifts state mask mandate Democrats argue Trump will incite violence again MORE (R) and House candidate Matt Rosendale (R) also spoke at Monday's rally.