Cook Political Report shifts Montana Senate race to 'toss up'

The Cook Political Report, one of the country’s most prominent election handicappers, shifted the Montana Senate race between Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesSenate GOP seeks bipartisan panel to investigate Afghanistan withdrawal Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Daines to introduce bill awarding Congressional Gold Medal to troops killed in Afghanistan MORE (R) and Gov. Steve BullockSteve Bullock65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal Arkansas, New Jersey governors to head National Governors Association Biden 'allies' painting him into a corner MORE (D) to “toss-up” status on Thursday, the latest sign that the state has come into play for Democrats. 

In an analysis explaining the decision to move the race from the “lean” Republican column, Cook's Senate and governors editor Jessica Taylor wrote that, while internal polling in the race remains tight, Bullock’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent boost in his approval numbers could give him a lift in November. 

Daines could get his own boost from President TrumpDonald TrumpMcCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Biden's Supreme Court reform study panel notes 'considerable' risks to court expansion Bennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump MORE, who won Montana by 20 points in 2016 and will appear on the ballot again this year. But Taylor wrote that Bullock’s unique position as the only sitting governor running for a Senate seat in 2020 may help him overcome the Republican advantage. 

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“Governors races and Senate races are fundamentally different of course, but this year could be one where having such executive experience and successfully managing such a daunting crisis could help Bullock overcome the heavy Republican tilt of the state at the presidential level,” she said.

Democrats scored a victory in March when Bullock launched his Senate campaign after a previous bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination. That development ultimately prompted the Cook Political Report to shift the race from the “likely” Republican column to “lean” Republican, and fueled Democratic hopes that Montana would come into play.

Democrats need to win either three or four Senate seats in 2020 — depending on which party takes control of the White House — to capture a majority in the chamber.

The party’s electoral map has so far centered on four states with vulnerable Republican incumbents: Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina. But one Democratic incumbent, Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.), is facing an uphill reelection battle of his own, meaning that the party will likely need to win four seats elsewhere to take control of the Senate.

Montana could give Democrats a little more leeway in their bid to recapture the majority. Other states that they argue could become more competitive down the line include Georgia and Iowa, though election handicappers still see those states as leaning toward Republicans. 

One wildcard is in Kansas, where the retirement of Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call Bob Dole, Pat Roberts endorse Kansas AG Derek Schmidt for governor Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm MORE (R) has created a scramble among Republicans to replace him. GOP operatives had encouraged Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE to run for the seat, though he ultimately declined.

Republicans have become concerned that Kansas could come into play for Democrats if GOP voters hand the Senate nomination to Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to current Gov. Laura Kelly (D).