Tightening Race in Montana Could Flip Control of the Senate

Campaign signs line a lawn in Kalispell, Montana. The U.S. Senate race between Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Steve Bullock has seen some of the highest spending on advertising. Over $120 million has been spent on television advertising through Election Day on Nov. 3. (Courthouse News photo / David Reese)

(CN) — The days when incumbent U.S. senators enjoy easy reelection may have ended in Montana, where a high-stakes battle is being waged between Senator Steve Daines and his challenger, current Governor Steve Bullock.

Incumbent senators in Montana have enjoyed high reelection rates in the last 50 years, but Daines, a Republican, is throwing everything he has at his race against Bullock, a popular two-term governor — and a Democrat.

As the only election in America with a sitting governor seeking national office, the Montana Senate race could affect the tilt of power in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim four-vote majority.

The coronavirus pandemic has likely affected Daines’ campaign, as he’s a freshman senator with few major accomplishments, while Bullock is a sitting governor filling out his second term. And Bullock has high approval ratings for his handling of the pandemic.

“This is certainly the toughest electoral fight Daines has faced,” David Parker, chair of the political science department at Montana State University, said in an interview. “I’d say that voters likely didn’t have a clear idea about Daines before he started advertising in March. In part because until this year, his legislative accomplishments have been thin, and he really hasn’t gone about the state doing town hall meetings.”

Parker said Daines’ “biggest challenge is the current political environment with an economic downturn, a pandemic and a president who is broadly unpopular. In that situation, voters tend to take out their frustrations on the incumbent.”

One frustrated Montanan is former Governor Marc Racicot, a Republican who said this week he’s not supporting President Donald Trump. Racicot, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and George W. Bush’s campaign chief, said in an interview that he would vote for Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee.

Polls in the Montana Senate race initially leaned toward Daines, but recent polls have consistently shown the race being a toss up or putting Daines at a slight advantage. According to polls from fivethirtyeight, Daines has a one-point advantage, while Real Clear Politics has the race as a tossup.

Since World War II, Montana’s incumbent senators have averaged about an 85% reelection rate, but incumbents are most at risk with their first reelection, Parker said. Daines faced little opposition in his election in 2014 when Senator John Walsh, who had been appointed to the Senate to replace retiring Senator Max Baucus resigned and did not seek reelection. “Daines has never really faced a tough election before,” Parker said.

A win for Bullock would put Democrats one seat closer to control of the Senate, which they lost in 2014. Montana has long been a pivotal player in the U.S. Senate. Senator Mike Mansfield served as Senate majority leader from 1961 to 1977, longer than any other majority leader to date.

Bullock’s strengths are his name recognition, broad popularity and ability to lead Montana even when he faced Republican majorities in the Legislature. As governor, Bullock advocated for expansion of Medicaid in Montana, which has given health care coverage to some 80,000 Montanans. A former state attorney general, Bullock also championed the state’s Disclose Act, which requires groups to make public how they spend money to influence Montana’s elections.

Bullock also demonstrated his ability to win back the governor’s seat in 2016, despite the state carrying Trump by 20 points over Hillary Clinton. “I’d say absent Bullock on the ballot, Daines would have won fairly easily,” Parker said.

Bullock has also attracted a significant war chest in his campaign, which has made the race even more competitive. Daines has amassed just over $13 million in the race, according to the Federal Elections Commission, while Bullock has brought in $11.1 million with just a month before the Nov. 3 election.

Bullock has been seen as a moderate governor although Republicans are painting him as left-wing liberal. Daines, meanwhile, is riding the Trump train hard and fast, leaning ever more to the right. Daines and Bullock have one debate remaining of their three televised debates, on Oct. 10 and hosted by the Montana Television Network.

In the last debate on Sept. 28, Bullock touted his response to the pandemic and focused on health care for Montanans. While Montana had one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rates early in the pandemic, the state has seen rising rates of infection in the last six weeks. Bullock said Republicans like Daines will try to end health care for Montanans by rolling back provisions of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark legislation commonly known as Obamacare.

“I’ll protect your access to health care, even in the middle of the pandemic,” Bullock said in the debate.

With conservative U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court last week, Democrats are concerned the high court could tilt against Obamacare — although Daines said it was unlikely the court would overturn the law. However, Daines said he wants to see the Supreme Court “protect our way of life. I’ll be standing behind the amazing nominee.”

Montana has two Senate seats and one at-large House seat. The House seat is also up for grabs: Republican Representative Greg Gianforte is resigning his House seat to run for Montana governor.

As a freshman senator, Daines sits on four committees: finance, appropriations, energy and natural resources, and Indian affairs. Daines, the third senator from Montana to serve on the Senate Finance Committee, is pushing a co-sponsored bill through Congress that could have a large impact on Montana — the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, which would clarify ownership of Montana water rights throughout about two-thirds of the state and resolve water rights claims by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Under their 1855 Hellgate Treaty that established the tribes’ reservation in northwest Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes assert rights to most of Montana’s water dating back to “time immemorial.” The 2015 Montana Legislature passed the Montana water compact, which then headed to Congress, where Daines and Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, have co-sponsored the legislation in its current form.

Introduced in the Senate in December 2019, Daines and Tester’s bill has had only one hearing since. And a loss by Daines could spell doom for the bill. Daines has also introduced the Grizzly Bear State Management Act, which would remove the grizzly bear from Endangered Species Act protection in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, return management to the State of Montana and “prevent further obstruction in the courts.”

“Wildlife management should be determined by science, not a court order,” Daines said. “The science has long proven that the grizzly bear population in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem has fully recovered.”

Of Montana’s 56 counties, 46 will do mail balloting due to the coronavirus pandemic. In early summer, when the virus spiked nationwide, Bullock encouraged Montana counties to have in-person voting, but most local polling places went the way of the post office — a choice supported by a majority of Montanans, according to a Big Sky poll.

The poll found 57% of respondents said they believe voting at a polling place was safe, however, 66% said they preferred to cast their ballots by mail. Montana voters will be mailed ballots on Oct. 9, and results will begin being hand-tabulated the next day, according to Susan Ames of the Montana Secretary of State’s office.

Montana will begin machine counting of absentee ballots on Nov. 2. Counties will count and post the election results to the Secretary of State’s Election Night Reporting System.

Results will start to display after 8 p.m. on Election Day, Ames said.

Montana election results are finalized once the post-election audit, county canvass, and the state canvass are complete, pending any potential recount activities within five days of the official canvass, Ames said.

The road to mail balloting in Montana has been a tumultuous ride. The Montana Supreme Court recently affirmed a lower court’s block of Montana’s “Ballot Interference Protection Act,” a 2019 legislative attempt to restrict certain forms of mail voting.

Meanwhile, a federal judge also rejected an effort by the Trump campaign and state and national GOP to block Montana counties from holding a mostly mail election. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen issued an order Sept. 30 finding no evidence in Montana that the mail balloting would create widespread fraud, calling the lawsuit’s claims “fiction.”

“When pressed during the hearing in this matter, the plaintiffs were compelled to concede that they cannot point to a single instance of voter fraud in Montana in any election during the last 20 years,” Christensen wrote. “Montana’s use of mail ballots during the recent primary election did not give rise to a single report of voter fraud.”

Bullock had used his authority under an emergency declaration to suspend the state law that prevents general elections with all-mail balloting. Montana counties all used mail ballots for the June primary election. Bullock said in a statement that “there is nothing more sacred in our democracy than the right to vote, and no duty of government more important than to keep its citizens safe.” Bullock said Judge Christensen’s order “will enable thousands of Montanans to vote safely.”

However, the executive director of the Montana Republican Party said Christensen’s ruling was “disappointing.

“The U.S. and Montana constitutions are very clear: the Legislature has the sole authority to determine the time, place, and manner of elections. Yet Governor Steve Bullock — the very person with the most to gain as a candidate on the ballot this November — unilaterally rewrote election laws in a broader effort to benefit his U.S. Senate campaign.” Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor at the Cook Political Report, said, “This is a race we see as very competitive, and the way it became competitive was not even on the map for Democrats until they convinced Governor Bullock to join at the last minute.”

Bullock had mounted a bid for the presidential nomination but dropped out in December.

While Montana has leaned Republican in presidential races, Democrats have had the governor’s seat for 16 years and Tester, a farmer — and Democrat — from small town Big Sandy, Montana, has been elected twice.

Taylor said Daines “hasn’t really done anything in particular” to make him especially vulnerable to Bullock. But Bullock may have gotten himself into trouble by mounting a “perhaps ill-advised” presidential campaign during which he may have sounded anti-Second Amendment, Taylor said.

“His take on guns could hurt him there,” Taylor said. “Daines is trying to tie Bullock to the national Democratic Party.”

So far about $124.4 million has been spent in television advertising on the U.S. Senate race in Montana, with that amount being fairly evenly split between Bullock and Daines. Taylor said data from Advertising Analytics show Democrats have spent $71.4 million on ads, while Republicans have spent roughly $53 million through Election Day.

“We’re clearly seeing a lot of outside money in this race,” Taylor said, “and there could be more money coming in in the final weeks. Polls remain incredibly close in the state.”

This race is still too close to call, according to Taylor.

“These are two very strong politicians in the state that voters like,” she said.

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