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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock‘s about-face Senate campaign announcement at the filing deadline Monday provides an 11th-hour boost to Democrats’ hopes of winning the majority.
In Bullock, Democrats landed a far more potent opponent to Sen. Steve Daines (R) than the first-time statewide contenders already running, whose candidacies invited little confidence in the red state.
He’s the second former presidential contender to launch a bid for the Senate after consistently insisting he wouldn’t. But Bullock’s bid makes an even bigger splash than former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper because he moves a Republican-leaning state onto the competitive map.
Bullock’s announcement video, released at 8 a.m. ET, highlights his record as governor on issues including the economy, education and health care. It ends with the tag line, “Make Washington work like Montana.”
Adding Montana to the mix of offensive opportunities widens Democrats’ path to netting at least three seats. It currently runs through Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), along with second-tier options in Iowa and Georgia and a possible opening in Kansas. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is the party’s own most vulnerable seat, but Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) also faces a challenge.
If President Donald Trump wins re-election, Democrats would need to net a fourth seat because the vice president’s party would break a 50-50 tie.
“Democrats will need to win the bulk of competitive races, but the seats are there,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.
Daines will start out the race as the favorite, given Trump’s 20-point win there in 2016 and the fact that every state with a Senate race that year voted for the same party in both races. The decline in split-ticket voting will be a challenge for Bullock, who’s won three statewide campaigns in presidential years — twice for governor and once for attorney general — but never when seeking a federal office.
Still, Bullock won’t have to look far for a recent example of Senate race success. Sen. Jon Tester (D) was re-elected to a third term in 2018 with 50% of the vote.
“It will be a winnable race if he gets in,” Tester said last week, after the news broke that Bullock was reconsidering a run. “It will certainly be a seat we can pick up, but it won’t be easy.”
Daines released a TV ad last week shortly after the news broke. In it he touts the national economy and discusses balancing the budget, lowering prescription drug prices and protecting veterans — all messages aimed at attracting swing voters.
In a sign of how seriously he’s taking Bullock, it was Daines’ first media expenditure of the campaign, according to Advertising Analytics.
“As your senator, protecting your pocketbook is my top priority,” Daines says in the spot.
Bullock already knows he’ll face attacks from Republicans on statements he made during his seven-month long campaign in the Democratic presidential primary, during which he ran as a gun-owning supporter of some restrictions on firearm purchases.
Anticipating his potential run and encouraging him to stay out, the pro-Republican Senate Leadership Fund released a digital ad in November that criticized Bullock for his presidential bid. It mentioned his time out of state on the campaign trail, shifting positions on issues such as guns — he now supports a ban on assault weapons — and public statements about Trump, including that the president should be removed from office.
Bullock’s initial refusal to enter the Senate race could also surface during this run.
While Republicans began setting up an anti-Bullock message while he was still running for president, Democrats kicked off an anti-Daines campaign a week after Bullock dropped out in December. A Democratic-aligned group, Montana Conservation Voters, released a TV ad hitting Daines for “shortchanging” the state on federal funding for public lands.
“He sold us out,” a hunter says in the ad.
Trump used a March 3 tweet to back a bill dealing with the Land and Water Conservation Fund and praised both Daines and Gardner, who faces a tough race against Hickenlooper.
Bullock supporters point to Tester’s 2012 victory, when he won by 4 percentage points, 48.6%-44.9%, while Republican Mitt Romney won the state with 55%, and Bullock’s 4-point victory in 2016 with Trump at the top of the ticket as evidence that a win is possible even in this polarized environment.
Another complication will be the likely addition of Libertarian and Green Party candidates, who could pull some support away from both major-party nominees. In Tester’s 2012 race, a Libertarian took more than 6% of the vote.
“Montanans don’t pick a party and vote down the ticket, they vote for the person they think is best,” said Aaron Murphy, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters and a former chief of staff for Tester.
“If that means Donald Trump will handily win re-election in Montana, that doesn’t mean they will vote for Steve Daines for Senate,” he said.
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