After 30 years of living in the West, I’ve come to the conclusion that of all the Western states Montana has the most interesting political scene. On Election Day voters in blue states (California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico) are predictable in their groupthink liberalism. On the other hand, red states (Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and precariously Arizona) metaphorically include left-wingers as targets in their vibrant hunting cultures. On Election Day the Democrats are on the menu. Which brings us to Montana.
The Treasure State is known for a conservative farm and ranch base and an old progressive union sector (mining in Butte) that has seen better days but is buttressed by liberal newcomers to the state, an entrenched bureaucracy in the state capital of Helena, and the blue bastion college cities of Missoula, Bozeman, and Billings. President Trump carried Montana by 20 points in 2016, yet over the last couple of decades voters have routinely sent Democrats to Congress and to the governor’s office. Pat Williams, Jon Tester, and Brian Schweitzer are good examples. “It’s a populist purple state,” Montana State University (MSU) political scientist David Parker recently told Bloomberg.
This year’s contest between incumbent GOP Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock could be one of the factors affecting the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
Montana politics going back to the 19th century saw a distinct struggle among agricultural interests (mostly ranching), the “extractive industries” (mining and timber), and the railroads, thus making for a great feast of bribery and political chicanery that lasted for decades. The so-called “Copper Kings” dominated state politics through fiscal corruption, with one (William Clark) attempting to bribe members of the state Legislature to obtain a U.S. Senate seat (back when state Legislatures elected U.S. senators). This in turn helped to birth the national labor movement during the Progressive Era of over a century ago. And ranchers, masters of large domains, held much political power, especially on the local level.
The first appointed acting territorial governor of Montana was Thomas Meagher, an Irish-born Civil War Union brigadier general. In 1867, he drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton after falling off a steamboat. Scholars disagree as to whether he was drunk, committed suicide, or was murdered by political enemies. Meagher is typical of a number of colorful characters serving in Montana’s public life throughout its early history. And the Treasure State produced one statesman that comes to mind: Mike Mansfield, who had a distinguished 20th-century House and Senate career (1943–77) and served as Ambassador to Japan through the entire terms of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (1977–88).
This year’s senatorial contest between incumbent GOP Sen. Steve Daines, 58, and soon to be term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, 54, promises to be close. The Battle of the Steves, if you will, could be one of the factors affecting the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
The Daines–Bullock Senate race has gained national attention for a number of reasons. First, Steve Bullock conducted a failed presidential bid in this year’s Democratic primaries. He dropped out early but at the same time managed to gain national recognition. It has been suggested — though Bullock denies it — that his failed presidential campaign was waged simply to raise his profile for his current Senate run. Secondly, as a popular governor and ex-attorney general with good approval ratings, Bullock gives Democrats a chance to gain a seat in their quest to regain the majority or at least improve on their 53-47 minority status in the U.S. Senate. To this end, a coaxing Barack Obama phoned Bullock, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer traveled to Helena for a personal meeting to court him. Schumer — very much at home in hipster Brooklyn — walking the streets of Montana’s capital conjures up comic mental images. He must have been terrified. Pickup trucks passing by full of bitter clingers with back window gun racks and flying American flags, and cars festooned with Trump–Pence bumper stickers.
Steve Daines hails from Bozeman, and his political résumé begins when as a student at MSU he was selected to be a delegate at the 1984 Republican National Convention. He then worked for Procter & Gamble for 13 years before joining his friend, now Republican congressman, Greg Gianforte (currently running against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney in Montana’s gubernatorial contest) at Gianforte’s startup “Right Now Technologies” in Bozeman, where he worked for 15 years. In 2012, Daines was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served one term before winning an open Senate seat, beating Democrat Amanda Curtis for Max Baucus’s seat when President Obama appointed the latter Ambassador to China. The Bullock campaign has gone after Daines for his role in shipping jobs to China at the behest of Procter & Gamble. As part of his P&G career, Daines resided in China for a number of years.
Bullock is plagued by a financial scandal, which he dismisses as political mudslinging. His brother Bill Bullock founded a company called “Pioneer Technical Services,” an environmental engineering firm, and is accused of using his familial ties with the governor’s office to obtain favorable treatment with the awarding of $14 million in state contracts since 2013. According to the Washington Examiner, “Bill Bullock remained involved in the company’s board after he stepped down as CEO in 2009.” Steve Bullock had himself worked in a legal adviser consulting role for the company before beginning his tenure as Montana’s attorney general (2009–13). Bullock maintains that the governor’s office has no role in awarding state contracts, but as they say in politics, the optics aren’t good.
One of the Daines’ campaign attack ads focuses on Bullock’s support of the Democrats’ proposed assault weapons ban that came up at his single debate appearance during his ill-fated presidential bid, to satisfy Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and other radical candidates who ran in the Democratic primary. Bullock is trying to repair the damage with typical pro-firearms ads portraying himself — rightly — as an avid hunter. Montana pols are noted for this tactic (former Gov. Brian Schweitzer comes to mind) of donning camouflage and hunter orange when their Second Amendment bona fides come into question. Montana is a strong pro-gun state with an enthusiastic hunting culture. The Daines campaign ran an ad highlighting Bullock’s National Rifle Association (NRA) “F” rating.
Daines has a consistent record supporting Republican policies, whether those emanating from the Senate via Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or from President Trump. He was instrumental in the recent passage of the “Great American Outdoors Act,” legislation that provides $1.9 billion per year for five years for maintenance and infrastructure projects in the national parks and other public lands. As previously noted, the president carried Montana by 20 points in 2016, and even if the Biden campaign were to halve that margin on Election Day, Daines’ Senate seat should be secure. But the race is for now a toss-up. The RealClearPolitics average has Daines up by 1.6 percent, well within the margin of error.
Daines’ main problem is the approval numbers that Bullock has garnered after eight years in the governor’s office. If any Democrat in Montana can defeat Daines, it is Bullock. The governor has received high marks for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis in its initial stages in Montana, has a track record assisting the survival of small rural hospitals, and supported Medicaid expansion to the benefit of 90,000 Montanans, though the Daines campaign relentlessly tries to tie Bullock to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and their calls for a single-payer “Medicare for All” health-care system.
Montana television affiliates have barraged the state’s airwaves with approximately 50,000 Daines and Bullock positive and negative political ads since June. I watch a couple of Missoula stations, so have been privy to them at home in Idaho. I join the Montana electorate in yearning for the November cessation of the Battle of the Steves.
Bill Croke is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.