Few in Montana feel ready to predict how the high-stakes US Senate battle between Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will play out.
It could be decided by just a few thousand votes.
“I think it’s too close to call right now,” said Montana pollster and University of Montana professor Sara Rinfret.
Montana is often miscast as reliably conservative; rather, the state is fiercely independent. Voters typically back Republican presidential candidates, but down-ballot races often are more competitive. Montana also has a history of sending Democrats to the Senate, a tradition cemented by Sen. Jon Tester’s narrow reelection win in 2018, a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year for Senate Democrats in Republican-leaning states.
“I think most Montanans — and people in most states — are 60-70 percent in the middle,” former Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D) told Vox. “What most people really care about [is] are you trying to do what’s best for us?”
Daines may appear to have a built-in advantage, as the Republican incumbent in a state President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. But Bullock has a fighting chance because of his high popularity and name recognition in the state. With an approval rating of 60 percent, compared to 52 percent for Daines, Bullock is currently the state’s most popular elected official, according to a recent Montana State University poll. (Bullock’s campaign did not make him available for an interview, and Daines’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment).
There are two schools of thought about how Democrats can win close races in 2020; by running as unapologetically progressive or trying to find common ground with Republicans. Bullock is certainly not embracing Trump, but he — much like Biden — is running on the idea that there still is attainable compromise between the two parties.
Bullock “makes sure compromise is part of the equation and not a dirty word,” Sen. Tester told Vox. “That’s simply not how it is in Washington.”
Perhaps the biggest sign of danger for Daines is Trump’s slipping approval rating in a state he won overwhelmingly four years ago. The Montana State University poll found the president has a 7-point lead over Joe Biden, compared to a 16-point polling lead over Hillary Clinton in October 2016. The latest polling result echoes a troubling national trend for Republican politicians.
“If you look at his performance in 2016, the big message here is this could be a problem for down-ballot races,” said MSU pollster and political science professor David Parker. “It could be that some of those Trump voters have moved into the Biden column ... it could be a sign the base is dispirited. Either of those things is not good for Republicans in Montana.”
Why the race between Daines and Bullock is so tight
Public polling show Bullock and Daines essentially trading places, either one or two points ahead of the other candidate. The larger picture is that it’s a race with no clear frontrunner right now.
“You have two candidates who have been fixtures in Montana politics for years,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report — who rates the Montana race as a toss-up. “Bullock was the only candidate who could put this into play. What is keeping him in it is certainly Trump is doing worse than he was in 2016 everywhere, but especially in Montana.”
Bullock is running on his record of bipartisan accomplishments in the state. Since being elected governor in 2012, Bullock passed major bills like Medicaid expansion, a dark money ban and an infrastructure bill — all working with a Republican-controlled state legislature. It’s the kind of bipartisan compromise that’s eluded Washington, DC, for years, and it also served as the foundation of Bullock’s pitch for his short-lived 2020 presidential run.
There’s a simple explanation for the difference between Washington and Montana: It’s all about who is in charge, according to Tester, Montana’s senior senator.
“Bullock was in a leadership role and he made it work,” he said. “Mitch McConnell doesn’t want to make it work, he wants it to be partisan.”
Democrats and Republicans working together is something of a necessity in Montana, where even the cities have a small-town feel. Knowing your neighbors goes a long way in a rural state.
“We had already built this level of human trust,” said Montana House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner. “Because we’re such a small state, we have an open-door policy with even the governor’s office. You learn to deal with people of a different values system no matter what, or you’re not going to get stuff done.”
Bullock and state Democrats have been able to forge agreements with a group of pragmatic Republicans in the state legislature known as the “Conservative Solutions Caucus.” This is a group more concerned about keeping the state’s rural hospitals open than the optics of putting tax dollars towards the state’s social safety net.
“Gov. Bullock’s never had a Democratic legislature,” said Pat Sweeney, a senior adviser at the Montana-based Western Organization of Resource Councils. “As governor, he’s really been able to work in a bipartisan manner in a state where the politics ... have been so divisive and the divisions between Republicans and Democrats so sharp.”
Daines, the Republican incumbent, is a longtime state party leader. In Montana, Daines is viewed as a pretty affable and friendly guy; certainly not of the same ilk of Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Rep. Greg Gianforte, who drew backlash in 2017 after body-slamming a reporter who was trying to ask him a question. Daines is more “likable” and not “bombastic,” according to Taylor.
“He’s someone who stays under the radar, I’m not sure he evokes a lot of vitriol necessarily,” Taylor told Vox. Still, Daines has tethered himself closely to Trump throughout the last few years, taking a controversial vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Montana expanded Medicaid through the ACA in 2015, giving nearly 100,000 Montanans access to health coverage. Daines’s vote would have stripped them of that coverage.
These days, Daines looks like he’s walking a tight-rope on health care.
“The experts are saying it’s highly unlikely they’ll overturn the ACA; that’s the consensus of many legal experts,” Daines said at a recent Senate debate, vowing to protect preexisting conditions despite voting multiple times to repeal or undermine the law. Daines has voted with Trump 86 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s vote tracker.
Sticking with Trump initially may have seemed smart for Daines, whose own approval rating is at 52 percent. But the president’s polling numbers in Montana could be giving the senator pause.
“It’s not like people dislike [Daines], his approval rating’s fine,” Parker said. “It’s just that Bullock is really well liked, and I’m not sure that people have a perception of Steve Daines beyond the fact he’s linked himself closely to Trump.”
How Democrats can win in Montana
Bullock is working in different terrain than many of his fellow Democratic challengers. Montana is a state with a lot of land but a relatively small population, home to about 1.1 million people.
Even so, Montana has its own versions of cities and suburbs; the state’s population skews somewhat older than in other states, but younger people who prioritize outdoor recreation and the state’s vast natural beauty are moving to cities like Bozeman and Missoula (home to Montana State University and the University of Montana, respectively). Turning out young voters and convincing independent voters was key to Tester’s 2018 victory, and Bullock must repeat that to win, according to Parker.
“[Bullock’s] got a huge lead among young voters, so do we see a boost in voter turnout like we saw in 2018 among young people, does that continue?” Parker asked.
Montana is 88 percent white, but it also has a sizable number of American Indians, with 12 tribal nations making up about 7 percent of the overall population. Native American voters tend to favor Democrats (save for the Crow tribe, whose leaders have endorsed Republican candidates in the past in part owing to coal reserves on their tribal lands). And because Montana Senate races are typically so close, Native American turnout can be a deciding factor.
“Democrats are never going to win in Montana with more than [a 3- to 4-point] margin,” a Democratic operative who was granted anonymity to speak freely told Vox this summer. “The difference when you have high turnout in the Native community and you convince them to vote for you — that’s the difference between winning and losing.”
Native American voting rights groups recently won a major victory in the courts, winning a lawsuit allowing them to collect absentee ballots of voters on reservations and drop them off at election offices. The state’s tribal nations have been hit hard by Covid-19, and many Native voters face longtime barriers to voting access, including longer driving times to their election offices. Allowing groups to collect ballots could boost turnout among Native voters.
“I think we’ll have a record-high turnout, I have hopes it will be higher than it’s ever been before,” said Marci McLean, executive director of Montana-based voting rights group Western Native Voice. “Based on the turnout in the primaries, the news, and the current leadership, I think people are coming to realize that the very least we can do is vote to make a change.”
Bullock will also need to pull in independents, including some disillusioned Republicans. But the tide has already shifted, with some longtime former Montana GOP leaders publicly backing Bullock.
“I’m deeply disappointed in Daines,” said Bob Brown, a former Republican Montana secretary of state and state senator. “I’ve known him for many years, and he’s always seemed to me to be a real straight arrow. It seems to me he’s become such a supplicant to Trump. I had spent many years in the Republican vineyard, but I couldn’t vote for Trump.”
Bullock could be part of a powerful Western Democratic bloc
Bullock is one of a handful of Democrats running competitive races in Western states. If they win, they could form a powerful new regional bloc in the Senate Democratic caucus.
It’s too early to tell whether these candidates will be elected, or how they will legislate in the Senate. But many have said their goal is to restore bipartisanship to Congress, and plan to go out of their way to work with Republicans.
“We are pragmatic. We are problem solvers, by nature,” Colorado’s Democratic Senate candidate and former Gov. John Hickenlooper told Vox in a recent interview. “I’m old enough, I’m never going to get seniority, I’m not going to be fighting to be the chair of a committee. I’m going to be that foot soldier in the trenches that takes the time, weeknights, and weekends to build relationships with people in my party and the other party.”
Hickenlooper is one of four Democratic Senate candidates running in the Mountain West or the Southwest, along with Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana, former astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan in New Mexico. Lujan is expected to keep the New Mexico seat blue, and Hickenlooper and Kelly look to be the most likely Democratic challengers to flip Republican seats. Both Arizona and Colorado are rated Lean Democratic by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Bullock is running on a similar message as Hickenlooper who also worked with a Republican state legislature as governor. Both men briefly ran for president in 2020, touting the successful bipartisanship model of Mountain states and promising to bring such leadership to the White House. Now, they have the chance to bring this style of governing to the Senate.
Hickenlooper and Kelly may be slightly more favored to win their races than Bullock. But no matter the final number of Western Democrats elected to the Senate, more Democratic representation for states in the region is important, said Baucus, the powerful former senator and Senate Finance Committee chair.
“It’d be tremendous,” Baucus said. “I always thought Washington was too influenced by the Eastern seaboard. Frankly, it would add a little realism, a little objectivity to DC politics, which tends to be too much of an echo chamber.”