A state that President Trump handily won by 20 percentage points in 2016 could help Democrats claw back power in the Senate.
Two-term Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is pacing well against Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines ahead of November. And if Bullock finishes on top, Democrats only need another two or three seats to control the Senate, depending on Trump and Joe Biden’s White House race.
Bullock this week announced he raised $7.7 million between April and June, ending the second financial quarter with $7.4 million of cash on hand before the fall fight. He brought in more than Daines in the first three months of the year, but the senator has yet to disclose his most recent haul.
The contest is closer, according to polls.
In a University of Montana survey released on July 1, Bullock had a 4.3-point advantage on Daines in the state rated as a Cook Political Report toss-up, 47.3% to 43%. Another 9.8% of respondents were undecided. The study of 517 registered Montana voters, fielded from June 17 to June 26, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.31 points. In other words, they’re essentially tied four months out from the election.
Despite Montana’s reputation as a reliably Republican state at the presidential level, it has a history of backing Democrats running for statewide office. That includes its other sitting senator, Jon Tester, first elected in 2006. And before that, Montana Democrat Mike Mansfield was the Senate’s longest-serving majority leader, managing the chamber from 1961 to 1977.
Bozeman, Montana Mayor Chris Mehl wasn’t surprised by Bullock’s strong position given his popularity and record of notching up statewide victories in 2012 and 2016, when GOP White House nominees carried Montana. Bullock was the state’s attorney general before that as well.
“Montana has been a purple state, rather than red for some time,” Mehl told the Washington Examiner. “The state is up for grabs to good candidates. Remember that Trump visited Montana several times two years ago in an effort to beat Tester, and it did not have much, if any, impact.”
Bullock, who Mehl described as a no-nonsense problem solver, has been boosted by positive reviews of his COVID-19 response, the mayor explained.
“This fall will be like none other in recent campaigning. How that plays out in Montana — we’re a cheap date in terms of cost for a Senate seat — will be interesting to watch,” he said.
Claremont McKenna College politics professor John Pitney, who taught Bullock in college, agreed the contest hinged on goodwill toward the governor rather than being a referendum on Daines. The senator has avoided controversy that could’ve alienated him with his own constituents.
“The flip side is he’s not as high-profile as some other senators. So, apart from merely holding the seat for the party, he’s not a magnet for national attention and national money,” he said.
Pitney echoed Mehl’s belief Bullock had been aided by his management of the coronavirus outbreak. He added that even if Trump returned Montana to his ledger on Nov. 3, it won’t be by his 2016 margin. That could limit his ability to lift Daines at the top of the ticket.
“If we were looking at the conditions that prevailed in January, we’d be having a very different conversation. But the pandemic made Trump look bad, and it enabled Steve Bullock to look good,” Pitney said.
Bullock’s foothold in Montana is not the Democrats’ only path to Senate power. Retired astronaut Mark Kelly of Arizona, ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Iowa “farm kid” Theresa Greenfield, and Maine state House Speaker Sara Gideon are tracking well in their respective campaigns.
For Pitney, Bullock’s performance so far is a classic example of how parties can succeed by picking candidates who fit their constituency.
After a disappointing 2020 White House bid, Bullock was recruited by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to challenge first-term Daines. Bullock eventually launched his senatorial operation in March.
“Even in private, he was not eager to run for the Senate initially, but you know, Schumer is very persuasive,” he said. “Schumer is also very smart. He knows that Bullock is a perfect match for the state, and if anybody could win Montana for the Democrats, it was him.”
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