BILLINGS, Mont. – Steve Bullock never got to square off against President Donald Trump before dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary last year, but the two-term governor is getting another chance on his home turf by trying to oust a strong Trump ally in Montana's U.S. Senate race.
The balance of the closely divided Senate is in play in November’s election and tens of millions of dollars are expected to be dumped into Big Sky Country as Bullock challenges first-term Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
The contest presents a challenge Bullock has not previously faced: A well-financed incumbent closely aligned with a president who compels attention and has pledged to campaign in Montana on Daines’ behalf.
To win, Bullock will have to carry out the same feat Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is attempting at the national level and sway moderate voters who helped propel Trump to a 20-percentage point victory in Montana in 2016.
That same year, Bullock won his second term as governor with a 4 percentage point margin.
To hear Bullock tell it, he doesn't see the Senate race as an extension of his presidential run or Daines as a proxy of Trump.
“This isn’t about a referendum on Trump. This election is about leadership and who will fight for Montana every day in Washington,” Bullock said in his first interview since the two candidates cruised to victory in last week’s primary over lesser-known opponents.
It’s also a question of whether voters will boot one popular elected office holder to replace him with another. Daines won the seat by a huge margin in 2014 and has delivered legislative victories on issues ranging from land conservation to relief for businesses and workers impacted by the pandemic.
Daines so far is sticking with Trump in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a faltering economy and civil unrest stirred by police killings of minorities.
“This is going to be a jobs and economy election,” Daines said. “Elections are always about the future and the question will be who is best equipped to rebuild this economy working with President Trump.”
But those upheavals could test Daines’ close alliance with Trump, said University of Montana political analyst Sara Rinfret, as voters look for unifying leaders amid criticism of the president’s divisive response to the public health and race crises.
“Having Trump in your corner or being a unifier, that’s going to be the true test in November,” Rinfret said. “How does Steve Daines reconcile those two? He’s going to have to demonstrate he is able to bring people together.”
Until March, Bullock was adamantly rejecting a Senate run and a second term for Daines looked assured. Under pressure from Democratic party leaders including former President Barack Obama, Bullock, 54, threw his hat in the ring on March 9, sticking with the themes that drove his presidential bid: expanded health care access and a pledge to bring a Montana ethos of practical problem solving to Washington.
Within a week of his entering the Senate race, the arrival of the coronavirus upended the state and Bullock was in the limelight as he issued orders closing schools and restaurants followed by a general stay-at-home directive.
His quick response was credited with helping keep infection and death rates in Montana low. Daines said the low rates of sickness were welcome but the efforts to restart the economy have been too slow, including the opening of Montana’s entrances to Yellowstone National Park two weeks after the park’s Wyoming entrances opened.
“It was unfortunate that so many of our gateway communities missed the Memorial Day weekend,” Daines said.
Daines, 57, was a former business executive and first-term congressmen when longtime Democratic Sen. Max Baucus resigned in 2014 to become ambassador to China. That opened the Senate seat for the first time since 1978. Bullock appointed his then-lieutenant governor, John Walsh to fill it, a ploy Democrats hoped would give Walsh an advantage in the 2014 election until he dropped out late in the race amid a plagiarism scandal.
Daines rolled to victory over the Democrat’s last-minute nominee and in the Senate has sought to establish himself as willing to work across the aisle. Arguably his biggest victory is unfolding this week with the advancement of a sweeping, bipartisan land conservation bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, that Daines and Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner convinced President Donald Trump to support.
The success neutralizes a favorite line of attack by Democrats in many Western states in recent elections -- depicting Republicans as hostile to public lands.
But even as he’s carved out bipartisan credentials, Daines has stuck to Republican talking points, including criticism of China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic and support for Trump’s decision to bring in federal law officers to eject peaceful demonstrators from a park near the White House.
The loyalty has earned Trump’s praise, while Democrats have attacked Daines as a hypocrite after he was previously a outspoken China booster. Devolving relations between the two countries could doom a Montana beef export deal that Daines painstakingly cultivated.
“Here’s what happened: They lied,” he said about China’s initial downplaying of the virus’ severity. “First and foremost, we’ve got to hold China accountable for what happened and then look at what’s best for our national interest.”
Republicans hope to call out Bullock for catering to the left during his presidential bid, including support for a ban on some assault weapons, and later for caving to party pressure when he decided to run.
Bullock said his change of heart was driven by frustrations over the Senate’s party-line divisions.
“Let’s get beyond the partisan food fights of the day and get things done,” he said.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @matthewbrownap