Montana Senate Moves to Toss Up

Originally published in The Cook Political Report.

Montana skyrocketed to competitive status earlier this year when Democrats finally convinced term-limited Gov. Steve Bullock to jump into the race and challenge first-term GOP Sen. Steve Daines. That decision at the beginning of March came just before the COVID pandemic spread throughout the U.S., limiting the amount of campaigning either candidate could do. 

But the past few months have also highlighted the unique nature of this race, as the only contest with a sitting governor seeking a Senate seat. And like other governors who have ably handled the pandemic — especially in comparison to the Trump administration’s bungling — Bullock has seen his approval ratings rise exponentially too, up to 75 percent in one poll. Montana has had one of the lowest per capita infection rates (49th out of 50), with only 20 deaths as of June 17, and Bullock has gotten plaudits for closing the state early as it began to reopen last month. 

So it’s not surprising that Bullock seems to have benefited from his gubernatorial leadership during this crisis and being in the news daily. Recent private Democratic polling in the contest gives Bullock a small lead and finds that Bullock’s approval ratings are more than 20 points higher than Daines, though the incumbent senator remains slightly above water. GOP polling also shows that it’s a close race, but one where every internal poll for them has still shown Daines leading. Yet, even some Republicans privately admit this is likely to be a margin of error race to the finish line. Each party just believes it’s their candidate who will eke out the victory. 

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. Trump won the state by just over 20 points four years ago. Still, if we look at where the president is polling against Joe Biden nationally (an average Biden lead of 8.5), that would indicate Trump is on pace to win the state by double digits, but somewhere perhaps in the mid or low teens instead. 

Overcoming that margin is still tough in a presidential year — when Jon Tester won a second term in 2012 with President Obama atop the ballot, he outpaced him by almost 7 points. Obama lost Montana that year by nearly 14 points. But in 2008, Democratic Senate candidates in competitive races did outpace the top of the ticket by about 12.5 points. Also, Democrats argue that Biden isn’t as toxic in the state as Hillary Clinton was four years ago, and note that Obama even came within 2 points of winning the state in 2008. But Republicans say their polling from last month still had Biden far underwater in the state. Plus, if Trump’s numbers continue to sour nationally, there’s a chance that Republicans can make the argument that there needs to be a GOP Senate still to serve as a check on a Biden administration. 

But there’s some evidence that maybe Bullock’s performance with handling COVID-19 and generally good favorability in the state makes this a unique situation where traditional rules may not apply. Unlike other states with candidates newer to the statewide ballot, Bullock is already well-defined in voters’ minds, and it may be harder to change voters’ opinions of him. Bullock’s fundraising has been impressive since he got in, too — he outraised Daines by about $2.1 million in the first fundraising quarter, despite being in the race for less than a month before the deadline. In the six week pre-primary filing period too ahead of the June 2 primary, Bullock again outpaced the incumbent by a nearly two-to-one margin and pulled within $1.6 million of Daines’s cash of hand advantage.

Both parties have also begun to commit outside resources to the race too. According to data from Advertising Analytics, the Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC has reserved about $8.1 million for ads (broadcast/cable/satellite/digital), while their 501(c)(4) offshoot Majority Forward has reserved about $3.3 million. The DSCC has reserved about $5.2 million, set to begin in August. The NRSC has reserved $2.7 million, set to begin in September. The GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund has reserved $8.5 million, while their non-profit arm One Nation has reserved about $3.7 million, set to begin next week. 

Republicans push back on the notion that Bullock can prevail at a federal level in such a red state, and believe they have plenty of oppo to use against him from his brief, quixotic run for president last year that will ultimately bring down his numbers. They plan especially to hit him on guns after he backed an assault weapons ban, which even Tester does not support. But Democrats counter that Montanans’ impression of Bullock is already formed, and that their polling indicates the gun issue won’t move the numbers. And they scoff at Bullock’s first ad that came out this week, where he says he “won’t answer to party bosses,” after he was wooed into the race by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former President Obama. Nationalizing this race and making it more about control of the Senate instead of about whether or not voters like Bullock is key to GOP success. 

Daines’s ads have leaned heavily into blaming China for the pandemic, echoing talking points from the White House. However, his own background — and continued revelations about Trump and China — may negate the efficacy of those attacks. Before entering politics, Daines worked for Procter & Gamble, eventually moving overseas to work for them in Hong Kong & China. But Republicans counter that Daines’s business background is the bigger successful message and years in the private sector amid the current economic turmoil make him the stronger candidate. They also note that although the state’s COVID cases may have remained low, the state has had more significant job losses per capita than other neighboring states, and that could blow back on Bullock.

And Daines will point to the bipartisan passage just yesterday of the Great American Outdoors Act, which GOP leaders hope gives both him and fellow endangered Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner a boost. The bill fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund that’s critical to Montana and helps upkeep for national parks and public lands. Republicans say it’s evidence of the clout Daines has been able to build in the Senate and with the White House, but while Bullock praised the bill’s passage too, he intimated it was convenient for an election year.

After serving for the state’s at-large congressman for a term, Daines won this Senate seat in 2014 which was a very good year for the GOP. They flipped control of the Senate, after his initial Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Walsh, (who Bullock has appointed to fill the Senate seat after Max Baucus resigned to be Ambassador to China) imploded following plagiarism allegations. His replacement, state Rep. Amanda Curtis, couldn’t compete, and Daines won by 18 points. 

Bullock, too, has had the benefit of winning his governor’s races against weaker opponents than Daines will be, and Republicans counter that the Democrat has never truly been tested. He narrowly won in 2012 against then-Rep. Rick Hill, winning 48.9%-47.3%. Four years later, he won a narrow majority for the first time, beating Greg Gianforte 50.3%-46.4%. Democrats especially believe they have a winning message with him on health care, as he expanded Medicaid in the state after a compromise with moderate Republicans in the legislature. 

As is often the case in Montana politics, third party candidates could have an outsized impact on the race. There’s already a Green Party candidate on the ballot (a former state auditor who says Bullock created a hostile work environment) which might draw  votes from Bullock. However, Democrats are seeking to get that line off the ballot (they were successful at this in 2018 with Tester’s race). Two Libertarian candidates withdrew from the race, but the party, which has an unusually strong presence in the state, could still name a replacement before ballots are printed. 

Montana is the toughest state on paper for Democrats when we look solely at the presidential numbers. Still, it’s been clear for a while that this race is shaping up to be a unique battle between two well-liked Montanans (who both just happen to be named Steve), making it the most glaringly competitive race we’ve had in the Lean Republican column for the past few months. Several indicators now merit a more competitive rating, and therefore we are moving this race to Toss Up.