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"Liar, liar" – charges fly in final week of Montana's U.S. Senate race

Bullock and Daines make final arguments
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Posted at 1:08 PM, Oct 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-27 11:03:54-04

HELENA — As Montana’s big-dollar U.S. Senate race enters its final week, the campaigns of Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and his Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock, are trading charges of “liar” about everything from China to Covid-19 aid.

“Steve Bullock is lying to you about China,” Daines says in a TV ad that began running last week – referring to attacks on his record coming mostly from groups supporting Bullock, rather than the governor himself.

And the Bullock campaign ran page-length ads in the state’s major newspapers Sunday, saying “Steve Daines is lying to Montanans,” accusing Daines of falsely smearing the governor’s family and his Covid-19 relief task force.

“While we expect this type of behavior from Washington, we were especially disheartened to see that you and your campaign have started to spread the same lies that your Washington backers started,” said an open letter signed by more than 100 Bullock supporters.

The ads are a small part of the cavalcade of spending on this pivotal race, as national money has poured into a contest that will help decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. Polls have shown the race to be extremely close.

As of last weekend, spending on Montana’s U.S. Senate race approached $150 million, with nearly $90 million reported by more than three dozen outside groups, both for and against Bullock.

Pro-Bullock forces had outspent pro-Daines groups, $50 million to $37 million – and Bullock’s campaign also had outspent Daines through September, $35 million to $21 million.

By now, that money is chasing fewer and fewer votes, as more than 360,000 Montanans had already cast their ballots through Sunday – perhaps as much as two-thirds of the final vote count in a mostly mail-ballot election.

Ads on TV and other media in the final week are covering well-traveled campaign themes, as Daines and his backers try to paint Bullock as a “corrupt politician” and the Bullock camp chides Daines for his record on China and health care.

Here’s a closer look at these last-blast charges, and the facts behind them:

Daines anti-Bullock corrupt ad

Bullock and his brother’s company: This charge, first aired by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and now by Daines’ campaign, alleges that Bullock, as governor, steered $14 million in state contracts to an environmental consulting firm, Pioneer Technical Services of Butte, founded by his brother.

The charge has been largely debunked, as neither Daines nor the NRSC has provided any evidence that Bullock had anything to with state agencies’ awarding of the contracts, and Bullock’s brother had no financial interest in the company while Bullock was governor.

Bullock’s brother sold his share of the company in 2009, three years before Bullock became governor – although he has remained on its board of directors, for which he receives an annual stipend of $1,500.

A Daines ad last week also said the company “paid nearly $1 million back to Gov. Bullock.”

Daines’ campaign said this statement refers to rent that Pioneer Technical Services paid for office space in a Helena building that Bullock has owned for many years. The company has been a tenant of the building since 2005 – seven years before Bullock became governor.

Bullock’s financial disclosure form says he gets annual rental income from the building of $50,000 to $100,000. But his campaign said that income is from all tenants of the building – not just Pioneer.

DSCC anti-Daines China ad

Bullock’s Covid-19 relief task force: An ad last week by the Daines’ campaign, taking up charges first leveled by the pro-GOP Senate Leadership Fund, says Bullock used federal Covid-19 relief money to “reward his campaign donors” – referring to members of a task force that recommended how the state should hand out $1.25 billion in federal Covid-19 aid.

Several members of the task force wrote a letter to Daines last week, saying they served as volunteers and did not do so to financially benefit. They asked him to take down the ad and said it is “defaming small businesses and community leaders across Montana.”

Daines replied last week with his own letter, noting that five members of the task force have received grants higher than the average grant of $11,000 – including Nick Checota of Logjam Presents in Missoula, who got almost $1.3 million. That amount includes a $1 million grant for the live-entertainment company.

Thirteen of the task force’s 24 members are campaign contributors to Bullock. The Bullock campaign noted that five of the task force members have contributed to Daines’ campaigns since 2008.

While businesses owned by task force members have received some grants, they are a tiny fraction of the thousands of businesses that have received grants.

The administration said $700 million of the money had been distributed as of this week, through 32 programs, and that $1.2 million of the money has been allocated.

Daines anti-Bullock corrupt ad

Daines’ work in China: Ads attacking Daines on China, coming primarily from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Senate Majority PAC, note that he worked in China for consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble, setting up factories, while the company laid off American workers.

The ads also accuse Daines of voting against efforts to crack down on unfair Chinese trade practices.

Procter & Gamble officials have said Daines had nothing to do with corporate restructuring decisions that led to the American layoffs in the 1990s, and that the opening of Chinese plants, to sell into that market, probably created jobs for the company.

Daines did vote twice in 2015 against legislation to penalize China for currency manipulation and other harmful trade practices, saying it might lead to retaliatory action against Montana ag producers.

This year, Daines is supporting a GOP bill that could lead to sanctions against China for not cooperating in the fight against Covid-19. He also has supported some Trump administration tariffs against China.

Daines and health care: Ads from Bullock and his supporters have blasted Daines for voting to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act, saying that would “strip away” the law’s insurance protections for people with pre-existing health conditions and eliminate its coverage for 90,000 low-income Montanans.

They also frequently accuse him of accepting $700,000 in campaign funds from drug and insurance companies and rewarding them with big tax breaks.

Daines has voted several times to repeal the ACA, but notes that he is co-sponsor of a separate Republican bill that maintains some protections for those with pre-existing conditions. He also has said he wants to maintain Medicaid coverage for low-income Montanans at current levels.

The $700,000 figure also is accurate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions – although it’s a fraction of the $30 million Daines has raised in campaign funds since 2012, when he first ran for Congress.

Also, drug and insurance companies did benefit from a 2017 Republican federal tax-cut bill – but so did all corporations, and most individuals.