Political Ad War in Montana Signals Competitive Senate Contest

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Montana’s airwaves are filled with political ads six months before Election Day, a sign that both parties believe Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock‘s entry made the Senate race in this Republican-leaning state highly competitive.

The candidates and other outside groups have already spent more than $2 million on TV and digital ads, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks political ads. That includes nearly $800,000 spent on TV so far by Sen. Steve Daines’ (R) campaign.

Democratic-sponsored TV ads costing some $700,000 are currently running in the state. They attack the incumbent for not doing enough to help Montanans affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Montana is a race that becomes more competitive by the day,” said Rachel Irwin, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority PAC, which is allied with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The two party campaign committees have made plans for significant ad spending there. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has reserved more that $5 million worth of TV time for the fall, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee has reserved nearly $3 million of time.

The ads intensify the battle for Senate control, which Democrats can take by flipping as few as three seats if they also win the White House. Both sides have already announced hundreds of millions of dollars in ad spending nationwide, most of it in a handful races where Republican senators are seen as most vulnerable: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina.

Democrats’ path to the majority widened with Bullock’s campaign announcement at the filing deadline in early March. The race, in a state President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016, is rated Lean Republican by nonpartisan handicappers Cook Political Report and Inside Elections.

(Photo by Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is running for Senate

The Messages

The Democratic PAC’s ads accuse Daines of supporting corporate tax cuts but voting in a recently passed relief bill “to limit unemployment benefits for those thrown out of work by the coronavirus.” The spot referred to a vote on a Republican-backed amendment seeking to prevent workers from making more on unemployment than they previously earned in wages.

Republicans say they’ll blast Bullock for ignoring the state by running for president. He dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination late last year after failing to gain a national following and decided in March to run for a seat that could help Democrats flip control of the Senate.

“We’re not going to let Steve Bullock get away with treating Montana as a consolation prize after he spent the last year pandering to left-wing voters in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Jack Pandol, spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), said in an email. The Republican super PAC is aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

In an unusual move, the group ran ads attacking Bullock last year after he announced his White House run, saying he abandoned the state for a “quixotic” presidential bid.

Daines’ campaign has run ads highlighting China’s role in the origin of the coronavirus pandemic and touting the senator’s role in securing assistance to deal with the pandemic.

Those virus-themed ads are part of a larger trend, as media spending in congressional and presidential races has picked up since a lull in March. Most pro-Democratic ads focus on failures of Trump and Republicans to mitigate the virus’ effects, while Republicans frequently seek to focus on China.

Messages mentioning the coronavirus accounted for 65% of all ad spending from the beginning of April through May 5, according to an Advertising Analytics analysis.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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