Few in Montana feel ready to predict how the US Senate battle between Republican Senator Steve Daines and Democratic Governor Steve Bullock will play out.
It could be decided with only a few thousand votes.
"I think it's too close to call now," said Montana pollster and professor Sara Rinfret of the University of Montana.
Montana is often misunderstood as being reliably conservative; Dear, The state is very independent. Voters usually back Republican presidential candidates, but voting rounds are often more competitive. Montana also has a history of sending Democrats to the Senate, a tradition cemented by Senator Jon Tester's narrow re-election victory in 2018, a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal year for Senate Democrats in Republican-dominated states.
"I think most Montans – and the people in most states – are 60 to 70 percent in the middle," former Montana Senator Max Baucus (D) told Vox. "What really interests most people, are you trying to do what is best for us?"
Daines seems to have a built-in advantage, as the Republican serving on a President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. But Bullock has a chance to fight because of its high popularity and notoriety in the state. With an approval rating of 60 percent versus 52 percent for Daines, Bullock is currently the most popular elected official in the state, according to a recent poll from Montana State University. (Bullock's campaign did not make him available for an interview, and Daines' campaign did not respond to a request for comment).
Judge Amy Coney Barrett meets with Senator Steve Daines as she prepares for her October 1 confirmation hearing. Manuel Balce Ceneta Pool / Getty Images
There are two schools of thought on how Democrats can win close races in 2020; by running as unapologetically progressive or trying to find common ground with Republicans. Bullock certainly does not welcome Trump, but he assumes – similar to Biden – that there is still an achievable compromise between the two parties.
Bullock "makes sure compromise is part of the equation, not a dirty word," Sen. Tester told Vox. "It's just not like that in Washington."
Perhaps the biggest sign of danger for Daines is Trump's slump in approval ratings in a state he won by an overwhelming majority four years ago. The Montana State University poll found the president was 7 points ahead of Joe Biden, compared to 16 points ahead of Hillary Clinton in October 2016. The latest poll results reflect a worrying national trend for Republican politicians.
"If you look at his performance in 2016, the big message here is that this could be a problem for voting races," said MSU pollster and political science professor David Parker. “It could be that some of these Trump voters moved into the Biden column … it could be a sign that the grassroots are discouraged. Neither is good for Republicans in Montana. "
Why the race between Daines and Bullock is so close
Aside from one outlier poll where Daines is 9 points ahead, most recent polls show dead heat in the Montana Senate race.
Public polls show that Bullock and Daines essentially have trading venues, either a point or two ahead of the other candidate. The bigger picture is that it's currently a race with no clear front runner.
"You have two candidates who have been an integral part of Montana politics for years," said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor for the bipartisan Cook Political Report, which rates the Montana race as a mistake. “Bullock was the only candidate who could bring this into play. What is certainly preventing him from doing so is that Trump is doing worse everywhere than in 2016, but especially in Montana. "
Bullock reports on bipartisan performance in the state. Since Bullock was elected governor in 2012, he has passed key laws like the Medicaid expansion, a dark money ban, and an infrastructure bill – all in partnership with a Republican-controlled legislature. It's kind of a bipartisan compromise that Washington, DC eluded for years, and it also served as the basis for Bullock's pitch for his short-lived 2020 presidential election.
There's a simple explanation for the difference between Washington and Montana: According to Tester, the Montana Senator, it's all about who is responsible.
"Bullock was in a leadership role and he did it," he said. "Mitch McConnell doesn't want it to work, he wants it to be partial."
Democratic-Republican collaboration is a necessity in Montana, where even the cities have a small-town feel. In a rural state, it's important to know your neighbors.
"We had already built that level of human trust," said Casey Schreiner, minority leader at Montana House. "Because we're such a small state, we even have an open door policy with the governor's office. You learn to deal with people of a different value system, no matter what, or you won't get anything done."
Bullock and State Democrats were able to reach agreements with a group of pragmatic Republicans in the state parliament known as the Conservative Solutions Caucus. This is a group that cares more about keeping the state's rural hospitals open than about putting tax dollars in the state's social safety net.
"Gov. Bullock never had a democratic legislature, ”said Pat Sweeney, senior advisor to the Montana-based Western Organization of Resource Councils. "As governor, he was really able to work bipartisan in a state where politics were … so divisive and divisions between Republicans and Democrats so sharp."
Daines, the incumbent Republican, is a longtime party leader. In Montana, Daines is seen as a fairly easy-going and friendly guy. certainly not of the same kind as Republican gubernatorial candidate and current MP Greg Gianforte, who scored a backlash in 2017 after hitting the body of a reporter who was trying to ask him a question. According to Taylor, Daines is “more personable” and not “bombastic”.
"He's someone who stays under the radar. I'm not sure he is necessarily causing a lot of vitriol," Taylor told Vox. Even so, Daines has bonded closely with Trump in recent years, holding a controversial vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Montana expanded Medicaid through the ACA in 2015, giving nearly 100,000 Montaners access to health insurance. Daines' vote would have taken this reporting away from them.
Nowadays it looks like Daines is walking a tight rope in healthcare.
Montana is often misunderstood as being reliably conservative; Dear, The state is very independent.
"The experts say that it is highly unlikely that they will overthrow the ACA. That is the consensus of many legal experts," Daines said in a recent Senate debate and promised to protect the pre-existing conditions, despite having voted several times to pass the law Daines voted with Trump 86 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight's vote tracker.
For Daines, whose own approval rating is 52 percent, it may have initially been wise to stick with Trump. But the presidential election numbers in Montana could give the senator a break.
"It's not that people (Daines) don't like, his approval rating is okay," said Parker. "It's just that Bullock is very popular and I'm not sure people notice Steve Daines other than that he's been closely associated with Trump."
How Montana Democrats Can Win
Bullock operates in a different terrain than many of his 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 is slightly older than other states, but younger people who value outdoor recreation and the state's immense natural beauty are moving to cities like Bozeman and Missoula (home of Montana State University and University of Montana, respectively ). Finding out young voters and convincing independent voters was key to the 2018 Tester victory, and Bullock will have to repeat that to win, according to Parker.
"(Bullock & # 39; s) has a huge head start with young voters. So are we seeing an increase in voter turnout like the one we saw among young people in 2018? Asked Parker.
Montana is 88 percent white, but it also has a significant number of Native Americans, with 12 tribal nations making up about 7 percent of the total population. Native American voters tend to favor Democrats (aside from the Crow tribe, whose leaders have historically endorsed Republican candidates, in part because of coal reserves in their tribal areas). And because races in the Montana Senate are usually so close, Native American voter turnout can be a determining factor.
"Democrats will never win by more than (3 to 4 points) in Montana," a Democratic activist who was granted anonymity for free expression told Vox this summer. "The difference, when you have a high turnout in the local community and convince them to vote for you – that is the difference between winning and losing."
Native American constituencies recently won a major court victory and won a lawsuit allowing them to collect postal ballot papers from voters on hold and to hand them in at polling stations. The state's tribal nations have been hard hit by Covid-19, and many local voters face long-standing barriers to accessing elections, including lengthy travel times to their polling stations. Allowing groups to collect ballots could increase the turnout of local voters.
"I think we will have a record turnout. I hope it will be higher than ever," said Marci McLean, executive director of Montana-based constituency Western Native Voice. "Because of the turnout in the primaries, the news and the current leadership, I think people will find that the least we can do is vote for a change."
Bullock also needs to involve independents, including some disaffected Republicans. But the tide has already changed, with some longtime former Montana GOP leaders publicly supporting Bullock.
"I am deeply disappointed with Daines," said Bob Brown, former Montana Republican undersecretary and senator. "I've known him for many years and he always seemed like a real straight arrow to me. It seems to me he has become such a supplicant for Trump. I had spent many years in the Republican vineyard but couldn't vote for Trump."
Bullock could be part of a powerful western democratic bloc
Bullock is one of the few Democrats who hold competitive races in western states. If they win, they could form a powerful new regional bloc in the Senate Democratic caucus.
It is too early to say whether these candidates will be elected or how they will legislate in the Senate. But many have said their goal is to restore Congressional bipartisanism and to go to the trouble of working with Republicans.
“We are pragmatic. We are problem solvers by nature, ”Colorado Democratic Senate candidate and former Governor John Hickenlooper said in a recent interview with Vox. "I'm old enough, I will never get seniority, I will not fight to chair a committee. I will be that foot soldier in the trenches who needs time, weekends and weekends to relate to people in my party and the to build another party. "
Governor Steve Bullock is fighting in Livingston, Montana on October 3rd. William Campbell / Getty Images
Hickenlooper is one of four Democratic Senate candidates running in the Mountain West or Southwest, along with Governor Steve Bullock of 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 appear to be the most likely Democratic challengers moving Republican seats. Both Arizona and Colorado are classified as Lean Democratic by the impartial Cook Political Report.
Bullock has a similar message to Hickenlooper, who also worked with a Republican legislature as governor. Both men briefly ran for president in 2020, extolling the mountain states' successful non-partisan model and promising to bring such leadership to the White House. Now they have the opportunity to bring this style of government into the Senate.
Hickenlooper and Kelly may be a little more preferred than Bullock to win their races. Regardless of the final number of West Democrats elected to the Senate, more democratic representation of states in the region is important, said Baucus, the powerful former senator and chairman of the Senate finance committee.
"It would be great," said Baucus. “I always thought Washington was too influenced by the East Coast. Honestly, this would add a bit of realism and objectivity to DC policies, which is usually too big an echo chamber. "
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