HELENA — Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and his Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock, are arming up for Montana’s most expensive, high-profile battle of 2020 – a marquee race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.
But in some of their first remarks after the June 2 primary, both men also are aiming for the political middle, where close elections are often won or lost in Montana.
“I’ve been recognized as one of the most bipartisan, most effective senators,” Daines told MTN News in an interview last week. “I was trained to solve problems, get results for Montana – not argue about them.”
And Bullock? He points first to his record of working with Republicans in the Montana Legislature to pass key initiatives, like expanded Medicaid and a crackdown on “dark money” in campaigns.
“Montana voters have seen how I’ve actually brought people together to get things done, and that’s Democrats and Republicans,” he told MTN News.
Even when it comes to President Trump, who remains relatively popular in Montana, Bullock and Daines tread lightly.
When asked if he’s a soldier for the Trump agenda who will welcome an expected campaign visit by the president, Daines said he’ll stand with “the people who stand with Montana, and President Trump stands for Montana.” But he said his only agenda is “for the people of Montana.”
Bullock said the U.S. Senate election is not a referendum on the president, but a choice on who’s best to represent “all Montanans” and show leadership.
“I’m going to work with whoever is president to do right by Montana, no matter what President Trump or others might say along the way,” he said.
Polls have shown the race to be close and the respected Cook Political Report now rates it a “tossup.” That means Montana’s sizable pool of independent voters may decide the contest.
And while voters will hear Daines and Bullock pitch themselves as bipartisan dealmakers, they’ll also see plenty of contrast between the candidates.
Bullock, an attorney and two-term governor, is dissing Daines for voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and “taking away” health care from Montanans, as well as being a yes-man for pharmaceutical companies.
“I mean, the idea that Costco or Wal-Mart can negotiate prescription drug prices but the federal government won’t even do it, because they’re captured by the drug industry?” he said.
Bullock also said the 2017 “Trump tax cuts” supported by Daines benefited primarily big corporations, rather than the average Montanan or business.
Daines, a former business executive with a software-development firm in Bozeman, said he insisted on including more relief in the 2017 tax-cut bill for smaller businesses, stood up for small-business help in the coronavirus relief bill and opposes government “taking over our health care.”
He said the election will focus on who’s best to create jobs and rebuild the economy, and points to his 28 years in the private sector.
“I’m the only candidate who knows how to actually create jobs and grow businesses,” Daines said. “I do think it comes down to four words: More jobs, less government. We can’t turn toward socialism.”
Daines also is taking a page from the national GOP playbook, attacking China for its role in the coronavirus pandemic and proposing tax breaks and other policies he says will encourage companies to move overseas jobs back to America.
Yet Daines often comes back to what he calls his bipartisan work for Montana, such as securing health coverage for Vietnam Navy veterans affected by Agent Orange, stopping the closure of two Job Corps offices in 2019, supporting funding for the Land, Water and Conservation Fund and lifting a ban on U.S. beef exports to China.
Bullock, too, often goes there first – saying he wants to continue to work with all comers on what will benefit Montana, such as a nationwide infrastructure and rural broadband bill.
“We need somebody who’s going to represent all Montanans and try to work together to get things done,” he said. “And I think I can do that.”