Democrat Steve Bullock takes on GOP. Sen Steve Daines in Montana

  • Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines in a highly competitive race in Montana.
  • Montana has been reliably Republican at the presidential level, but has elected several Democrats statewide, including Bullock, in recent years.
  • Bullock's strong electoral track record in the state and his impressive fundraising thus far makes him a highly formidable candidate against Daines. 
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Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines in a highly competitive race in Montana.

The candidates: 

Bullock, an outgoing two-term governor and former Montana attorney general, announced he would run for US Senate after a short-lived 2020 presidential run. 

As governor, Bullock was best known for working to expand Medicaid in the state, working to protect public lands, and successfully banning so-called dark money from undisclosed sources in Montana state elections. 

Daines, a businessman and former US House Representative for Montana's at-large congressional district, was first elected to the seat  in 2014 and is now seeking a second term.

He serves on the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committees, and has focused resources on protecting public lands — an important bipartisan issue in the state — and delivering resources to Montana's Native American communities.

Daines hasn't stirred up too much controversy during his time in the US Senate, but still faces a competitive re-election battle. 

Bullock has posted eye-popping fundraising numbers and is quickly gaining ground against Daines. Bullock broke an all-time quarterly fundraising record for Senate races in Montana, bringing in $7.7 million in 2020's second quarter compared to $4.8 million for Daines. And in Montana's cheap media markets, a little goes a long way. 

The stakes: 

In addition to winning back the White House, regaining control of the US Senate for the first time since 2015 is a top priority for Democrats and would be a major accomplishment towards either delivering on a future president Joe Biden's policy goals or thwarting President Donald Trump's second-term agenda. 

Currently, the US Senate is made up of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two independents that caucus with Democrats, winning that Democrats need to win back a net total of four seats to have a 51-seat majority (if Biden wins, his vice president would also serve as president of the Senate and would be a tie-breaker vote). 

And now, the US Senate is gearing up for a high-stakes confirmation battle to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at age 87 from pancreatic cancer on September 18. Within hours of her death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pledged that Trump's nominee for the high court would receive a vote on the floor of the Senate, and Trump said the day after that he would name a replacement "without delay." 

Ginsburg's death threw a stick of dynamite into an already supercharged election shaped by a deadly pandemic that has so far claimed over 200,000 American lives, and a national reckoning around race after several high-profile deaths of Black Americans in encounters with police. 

Trump and McConnell's posturing on the issue has excited conservatives enthusiastic about the possibility of Trump getting to appoint a third justice in his first term, but infuriated liberals who accused McConnell of blatant hypocrisy after he refused to hold confirmation proceedings for Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, citing the upcoming presidential election. Senate Republicans held the seat open long enough for Trump to appoint his choice, Justice Neil Gorsuch, to the seat. 

For years, Montana has been reliably Republican at the presidential level, but has elected several Democrats statewide. 

Democrat Jon Tester has represented Montana's other US Senate seat since 2007. And Bullock has a strong track record of winning crossover votes. He was first elected to the governor's office in 2012 as Sen. Mitt Romney won the state by over 13 points and was re-elected in 2016 as President Donald Trump carried the state by over 20 points. 

To be sure, the dynamics of federal and state-level races are often quite different, and unseating an incumbent Senator is a far more complicated task than winning an open gubernatorial race, for example. 

But in the context of Montana, Bullock's strong electoral record, solid approval ratings, and high name recognition in the state make him possibly the most formidable opponent against Daines and are putting the seat in play for Democrats.  

There are several other key races in Montana bringing national attention to the state, including the open governor's race between GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte and Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney, and the open US House race between Democrat Kathleen Williams and Republican State Auditor Matt Rosendale. 

What the polls say: The surveys of the race so far indicate a close contest between Daines and Bullock. 

A poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College from September 14-16 found Daines leading Bullock by just one point, 45% to 44%, among likely voters, with Daines' lead within the margin of error. 

Another poll conducted by Fabrizio Ward and Hart Strategies for the AARP from August 30-September 5 found Daines leading Bullock by three points, 50% to 47%. 

What the experts say: The Cook Political Report and Inside Elections rate the race as a toss-up while Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics rates it leans Republican. 

According to FiveThirtyEight's US Senate forecast, Daines has a 68% chance of defeating Bullock in November. Daines is expected to receive 52% of the popular vote, just 4% more than Bullock.

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