Montana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight
Montana is heading for a high-stakes battle between popular two-term Gov. Steve Bullock (D) and first-term Sen. Steve Daines (R) that could help determine control of the upper chamber.
Though Montana has traditionally voted Republican in presidential elections — handing President Trump a 20-point victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 — it has split its votes for statewide offices, including electing Democratic Sen. Jon Tester three times.
Bullock has raised Democratic hopes he can win a second Senate seat for them after joining the race once his presidential campaign fizzled out. Polls show the popular centrist governor leading Daines, though it’s still likely to be an uphill battle as the Republican senator has built up a beefier campaign bank account in a race rated as “lean Republican” by The Cook Political Report.
Democrats need to flip a net three or four seats, depending on which party wins the White House in November, to take control of the Senate.
Montana is seen as a pick-up opportunity for Democrats as Bullock heads to a primary on Tuesday against two other candidates he is easily expected to beat, setting up a blockbuster contest against Daines.
“It takes what would have been an absolute cake walk, close to a 0 percent chance for Democrats, to a kind of coin flip territory,” said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana. “We shouldn’t overstate it, I wouldn’t say he’s the favorite to win. In fact, I think it’s somewhere between an edge for Daines and just a straight toss up.”
Although Republicans elsewhere are hoping that having President Trump at the top of the ballot will boost turnout, Bullock is widely considered a Democratic star recruit: He served one term as the state’s attorney general and two terms as governor — winning each in presidential years.
Bullock, who was born and raised in Montana, has cast himself as a bipartisan governor who has avoided strong ties to national Democrats. The governor has frequently touted his cooperation with the Republican majorities in the state legislature to pass Medicaid expansion and campaign finance reform and has not attended a Democratic National Convention since he was elected to statewide office.
The governor has also won plaudits for his early efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has only infected about 500 people in the state.
A recent Montana State University poll found Bullock leading Daines by 7 points, in a state that observers say leans more toward libertarianism than the social conservatism that drives neighboring states and the South, making it less hostile to Democrats.
Observers say Bullock’s past success has been fueled in part by his ability to craft an identity that is separate from the national party and his appeal with independent-minded voters, a dynamic that will be critical to his success this cycle as well.
“The old adage of people want to vote for the person they’d like to go have a beer with, that really applies in Montana,” said Republican pollster Erik Iverson, noting that Montanans often call their lawmakers by their first names.
“You’ll see on both sides there’s a chunk of the electorate, roughly 12 percent or so, that can float back and forth depending upon who the candidate is and whether or not they connect with them,” he added. “And that’s that sort of libertarian or independent streak that you see in voters here.”
Still, Bullock is seen facing a tough slog to defeat Daines, who was also raised in Montana and was first elected to Congress in 2012. He served one term in the House before joining the Senate in 2015 after defeating his Democratic opponent by nearly 18 points.
Though Bullock has been a formidable fundraiser — he brought in $2.5 million over the past six weeks to Daines’s raised $1.3 million — Daines has far more money, sitting on a total of $9.2 million, compared with Bullock’s $5.8 million.
Republicans are also planning to spend big to defend Daines’s seat, with the top super PAC backing Senate Republicans reserving more than $10 million in airtime in Montana.
The party is already broadcasting potential avenues of attack against Bullock over stances he took during his unsuccessful presidential race, including coming out in favor of impeachment and gun control measures like an assault weapons ban.
“This is what it comes down to: Steve Daines is running for Montana and Steve Bullock is running for Chuck Schumer. Daines has a strong record of working with President Trump and Montanans can trust him to defend our values and protect our way of life,” said Julia Doyle, the Daines campaign’s communications director, referring to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Though Bullock has found statewide success in three consecutive cycles, his victories have all come with about 50 percent of the vote, an indication of just how tough his wins have been.
And this race is expected to be just as hotly contested, with Republicans especially motivated.
Nonetheless Democrats are confident in Bullock and his ability to pull off wins out of seemingly tough races.
“There isn’t some great mystery of how Steve Bullock is going to react in a tough campaign,” said a Montana Democrat familiar with the race. “He’s been completely vetted, he’s been attacked, he’s had to run against John McCain, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.”