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2020 Elections

Senate 2020: In Montana, Big Sky Country, Climate Change is Playing a Role in a Crucial Toss-Up Race

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InsideClimate News
  • Republican Sen. Steve Daines, whose state depends heavily on fossil fuel revenues, says Montana needs to balance environmental protection with an energy economy.
  • A task force is expected to unveil a report soon to Gov. Steve Bullock, Montana’s Democratic Senate candidate, on proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Both candidates portray themselves as Montana’s best hope for preserving the state’s outdoor culture in this closely watched, high stakes Senate race.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock quit the Democrats’ presidential contest in December, then announced his campaign a few months later to oust Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines. Bullock now finds himself in one of the nation’s most closely watched election fights of 2020—a toss up race that could help flip the U.S. Senate from Republican to Democratic control and make way for national climate action.

Democrats need to nab four seats held by Republicans to reclaim the Senate majority, or three GOP seats and a Democratic White House for a tie-breaking Vice President’s vote. That’s why a New York Times opinion piece described Bullock, a Helena lawyer who’s won praise for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as “the most important person on the planet.”

During his presidential run, the red-state Democrat told the Washington Post that he favored a “more focused” clean-energy program than the Green New Deal, and he said U.S. climate policy “must be ambitious, durable…[and have] a bipartisan foundation.” Although he opposed Obama-era fracking rules, Bullock told the Post he supported significant increases in renewables, energy efficiency and investing in carbon capture, along with reversing the Trump Administration’s fuel-efficiency standard rollbacks and withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Back in Big Sky Country, Bullock began building his climate bona fides in his second term, beginning with a statewide climate assessment in 2017. Last year, he requested the soon-to-be-announced Montana Climate Solutions Plan and enlisted his state in the U.S. Climate Alliance. Actions like these might be years behind efforts by more climate-concerned Western states, but Bullock’s leadership on the issue is seen as groundbreaking in territory where mining and fossil-fuel interests have historically dominated politics.

“We can see [the climate changing] right here in Montana in longer, more intense fire seasons, and the loss of ice in Glacier National Park each year,” Bullock’s campaign web page says. “By making smart policy decisions, we can mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture, the environment, and public lands, while protecting jobs and investing in new industries.”

There’s no question the GOP has been worried about a Democrat unseating the incumbent, Republican Steve Daines.

One sign: The GOP secretly paid $100,000 for a signature drive to get a ticket-splitting Green Party candidate on the 2020 ballot—without involving the state or national organizers for the Greens. Montana Secretary of State Cory Stapleton certified the Green Party candidate’s name to appear on the ballot, but the move was nixed by state courts and ultimately turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why would Republicans want the Greens on the ballot so badly? To siphon environmental voters away from Democrats in a state that’s more passionate about the outdoors than partisan loyalty. It’s worth mentioning that Democrats used a similar tactic in the 2018 race, when a Libertarian candidate presumably peeled off Republican votes, capturing 2.9 percent of ballots in a race that Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won by 3.5 percent, according to the Montana Free Press.

Daines Burnishes His Environmental Credentials

Montana’s Republican senator has made protecting Montana outdoor values an enduring theme in his pitch to voters. With Montana declared a “toss-up” state over the summer, the environment—and even climate policy—began to play a bigger role in Daines’ campaign to hold onto his Senate seat.

He stepped up efforts to green his image last fall, beginning with his partnership with another vulnerable western Republican, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, to end GOP resistance to reauthorizing the wildly popular Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Congressional Republicans had let the law lapse, but Daines and Gardner succeeded in persuading leaders to put it back on the Washington agenda.

In March, the duo announced that they’d convinced President Donald Trump to sign a bill securing permanent funding for the LWCF, which has helped finance park and conservation projects nationwide. After it was signed into law, Daines edged ahead in the polls.

Trump also helped the Montana Republican dodge a bullet by withdrawing William Perry Pendley’s name for leadership of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. A conservative lawyer and self-described Sagebrush Rebel, Pendley was targeted by conservation and green groups for advocating the sale of federal land and other controversial stands.

As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Daines would have been forced to vote on advancing Pendley’s name to the Senate floor had the administration not withdrawn the nomination. In contrast, Bullock took the nomination to federal court, suing to block the nominee from becoming the BLM’s leader or from continuing as “acting” director, as Pendley has been for the past year.

Throughout his first term, Daines’ statements about climate change closely paralleled the GOP party line. He called the Paris climate agreement “a bad deal” and credited fracking for reducing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions by increasing the use of natural gas. He cast many environmental controls and climate proposals as “radical” policies, sure to undermine the freedoms that Montanans cherish.

“When you look at some of these crazy ideas like the Green New Deal, the way I look at this is we need to ensure that we find policies that can be bipartisan and that also support Montana’s diverse energy portfolio,” he told The Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “The balance is what Montanans want to see. They want to see us protecting the environment … as well as ensuring we can have affordable, reliable energy.”

The contrast between the Montana Senate candidates on climate exploded into full view late in August after reports that the conservative Daily Caller had leaked the draft plan developed by Bullock’s Climate Solutions Council. A comprehensive analysis, the draft included advice to consider what Montana has to gain and lose from federal and regional carbon pricing proposals, a point that prompted dissent by four of the council’s 41 members.

Daines immediately shot off a letter to Bullock and shared it on Twitter. “You still support a job-killing carbon tax,” he said.

Bullock responded with a letter of his own, shared in a tweet: “As governor, I have consistently brought together diverse groups of Montanans to find bipartisan solutions. This is an attack on these collaborative efforts and knowingly dishonest to the people of Montana”.

Soon after, Bullock disowned the carbon-tax proposal. "I do not support any of the proposals for national carbon tax in Congress,” The Missoulian quoted him as saying. “I do, however, support this council's recommendation to have a seat at the table."

The Takeaway:

Fly-fishers on Montana’s fabled waters take care not to let trout see their shadows, but Montana Republicans seem to be taking the opposite approach in their 2020 election campaigns, relying on the dominant force of the Trump agenda to draw voters.

Polls suggest the president could be helping Republicans retain control of the state’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But the Cook Political Report counts Republican Daines’ Senate seat and the spot that Democrat Bullock is vacating in the governor’s office as toss ups.

The lure of a populist president, who won the state by 20 points in 2016, could sway voters toward—or against—Republican candidates this time around.

Editor’s note InsideClimate News is a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that provides essential reporting and analysis on climate, energy and the environment.