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Government & Politics

2020 Primary Preview: Montana's U.S. Senate Race

The U.S. Capitol building
Eric Whitney
/
Montana Public Radio
The U.S. Capitol building

A November contest for the U.S. Senate between Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Steve Bullock is expected by political observers to draw tens of millions of dollars in outside spending and national attention.

But first the Senate incumbent and sitting governor each face long-shot challengers in the June 2 primary.

Daines, from Bozeman, is seeking a second term in the U.S. Senate, after first being elected in 2014. Daines previously served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives and worked in the private sector for Procter & Gamble and RightNow Technologies.

Daines says he’s been able to deliver results in Congress for Montana and he’s focused on solutions to rebuild the national economy and protect and create more jobs in Montana in the wake of impacts from the coronavirus pandemic.

Daines faces two primary challenges on the Republican ballot, Daniel Larson, from Stevensville, and John Driscoll, from Helena. But Daines’ campaign is looking past that and focusing on the general election.

Ads on Instagram and Facebook shown around the country feature heavyweight GOP figures like Donald Trump Jr., Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and others echoing fundraising pleas for Daines.

In ads, Daines frames his candidacy within a national spotlight.

“This is Steve Daines and I know these are difficult times. But Democrats are working overtime to defeat me here in Montana. And with the help from President Obama and Chuck Schumer my liberal opponent is outraising my campaign by millions,” Daines says.

Daines is referring to current Demcoratic Governor Steve Bullock who entered the U.S. Senate race after dropping his bid for president.

Bullock is facing one primary opponent, John Mues, from Loma. Mues was the only Democrat to stay in the race when Bullock announced his entrance into it. Bullock’s campaign, like Daines’, is looking toward November.

The two-term governor and former state attorney general released a campaign kick off video cycling through accomplishments of Bullock’s time as a statewide executive. That video ends with the tag line, “Make Washington Work like Montana.”

Bullock says the country needs steady leadership to get the economy back on track to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Bullock’s campaign is also emphasizing the national implications of the race and reaching out to potential donors around the country.

Most recently that’s included social media posts pitting his campaign against national GOP figures.

“I’m Steve Bullock and I’m running for Senate. The road to a senate majority runs through Montana so I’m counting on you to both flip the Senate and kick out Mitch McConnell,” Bullock says.

Eric Raile is an associate political science professor at Montana State University and the director of the HELPS Lab. He says both Daines and Bullock look like they’ll become their parties nominees, so it makes sense that they’re using this time to get a head start on campaigning for the general election instead of fending off primary opponents.

Raile says that as the parties fight for congressional control the general election race could draw more than the $45 million in outside spending seen in Montana’s last U.S. Senate election in 2018.

“It does look like sort of a toss up who will have the majority of seats in the U.S. Senate after the general election. But there’s a long away to go,” Raile says.

Over the last six weeks Bullock’s fundraising totals are almost double Daines’, $2.5 million to $1.3 million, respectively. While Daines raised more overall this cycle for his reelection campaign, Bullock has outraised Daines in 2020 after jumping into the race in early March.

Daines has raised more around $9.3 million for his reelection campaign. Bullock has raised around $5.8 million. Most of the money fueling both Daines and Bullock campaigns is not coming from within Montana.

While Daines and Bullock run as presumptive nominees, primary opponents argue they’re best suited to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.

Daniel Larson, who has never held public office, is running on the Republican ballot. The hardware store manager from Stevensville says he’s offering a choice away from corporate politics.

“I’m doing this to try to show that, even if I don’t win, I think it will lay down a base path for where we’re at. In order for this nation to change, in order for our congressional delegation to get more honest and less influenced by the money in politics I do think we need to create a new path that allows people to win based on substance without having to raise millions of dollars from these different interest groups and political action committees," Larson says.

Larson says the Keystone XL pipeline does not make economic sense for Montana, he supports universal basic income and says Senator Daines has gone too far to support the executive branch and President Donald Trump.

John Driscoll is also running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican. Driscoll, from Helena, has previously run for the U.S. House as a Democrat and served as a state lawmakers and member of the Montana Public Service Commission.

If elected, Driscoll says, “My first priority is to look into why the POW/MIA operations have been getting canceled by U.S. forces in Lowes and Cambodia and Vietnam. That’s the first priority because it’s so important to Montanans and no one else seems to be looking at it.”

Driscoll also says people in Congress need to get along with each other better and if elected he’d take steps toward addressing climate change. He says he would not encourage the use of fossil fuel technology.

John Mues is campaigning on the Democratic ballot. Mues is a former teacher, naval officer and current engineer from Loma. He says expertise that Bullock doesn’t in national security issues and engineering in the energy sector.

“Do you want somebody, and I say this with respect, do you want somebody who has only been an attorney and career politician or do you want somebody, who like one out of every ten Montanans is a military veteran,” Mues says.

Mues says he supports an accelerated transition to a clean energy economy, the legalization of marijuana and is a more progressive Democrat than Bullock.

There are two Green party candidates listed on primary ballots.

Wendie Fredrickson, a former audit reviewer with the state health department from Helena, has not responded to a Montana Public Radio questionnaire about her candidacy.

Dennis Daneke, a retired Missoula College professor of sustainable construction from Lolo, says to not vote for him or his Green Party opponent. Daneke says his opponent was recruited to siphon votes from Democrats and he was recruited to siphon votes from Fredrickson.