Daines Adjusts to Life in D.C.

By Beacon Staff

Before November, the last time Steve Daines won an election was more than 30 years ago at Bozeman High School. He was elected student body president.

Now Daines, 50, is Montana’s lone congressman, representing a larger population than any other representative in the U.S. House. Rather than tiptoe into elected politics, he jumped right to the big leagues. And he couldn’t have picked a much more challenging time, right when the nation is facing a potentially debilitating fiscal crisis and Congress has historically low approval ratings.

You might wonder, given the circumstances, if he’ll begin missing his Bozeman High School political days. But six days after being sworn in, Daines said he was eager to prove he’s up to the test. It’s what he signed up for, and as of Jan. 9 the giddiness left over from his Jan. 3 swearing-in ceremony hadn’t yet dissipated.

Daines, a businessman from Bozeman, said the ceremony was a special moment made more special by the presence of his family. His wife Cindy and mother sat in the gallery, while his two youngest kids joined him on the House floor.

“Literally I had Caroline and Michael sitting next to me on the House floor,” Daines, a Republican, said in an interview last week. “It was just a memory, of course, I’ll never forget.”

Adding to the occasion was the Bible used to swear him in – a “little tattered Bible” passed down by his grandfather.

“My grandpa would have been very, very proud,” he said.

Daines defeated Democrat Kim Gillan 53-43 percent in November to replace Republican Denny Rehberg as Montana’s only representative – by contrast, California has 53 representatives. Rehberg left the office after 12 years to challenge Democrat Jon Tester for his U.S. Senate seat. Rehberg had won six consecutive two-year terms beginning in 2000.

A former executive for Bozeman’s RightNow Technologies, Daines has never held office before but has been involved in GOP politics for three decades. He attended the 1984 Republican National Convention as one of the youngest delegates for Ronald Reagan. In more recent years, he served as the Montanan chairman for Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign and was the lieutenant governor running mate on Roy Brown’s unsuccessful 2008 gubernatorial ticket.

Only a day after being sworn in, Daines wasted no time in demonstrating his ideologies and positioning himself in the Republican Party’s more fiscally conservative wing. He was one of only 67 out of 435 representatives in the House to vote on Jan. 4 against a $9.7 billion Hurricane Sandy relief package, bucking his party’s majority.

“In a time of crisis, we need to be there to help but we have a government that’s spending $3.6 trillion a year,” Daines said. “We need to find a way to reduce spending in one area so we can help those in need in another.”

Daines is socially conservative as well as fiscally. During the campaign, he stated his support of overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. He has also called for repealing the Affordable Care Act.

As uncertainty over the debt ceiling dominates headlines, Daines says the dilemma is a “symptom” of a national sickness, which is the federal government’s “spending problem.” He believes the government needs to fundamentally reform how it operates, “so that we have solutions that aren’t just fixing the problems of next year but also for the next generation.”

He would like to see a balanced-budget amendment, pointing out that Montana as a state requires a balanced budget and Montanans as individuals watch their spending.

“We need to bring more Montana common sense back to Washington and the country will be a lot better off,” he said.

Daines says his business background “is already being put to use.” Having run companies and met payroll, he said he understands how to balance a budget – “those kind of skills are badly needed in Washington.” He’s pleased with his three committee assignments: transportation, homeland security and natural resources.

“I don’t have the typical resume that exists here in Washington,” he said. “Most members here on the hill have had careers in politics.”

The Republican understands the responsibility that comes with representing a whole state, noting that out of 535 members in the House and Senate, Montana only has three to serve as its voice. Daines has already been in communication with Montana’s two senators – Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester – and there’s a photo of the three of them jovially joining hands at Daines’ swearing-in ceremony.

“We stand as three Montanans,” Daines said, adding that the three clearly won’t agree on everything “but we’re going to make sure we stand for the interests of our state.”

Daines is adjusting to D.C. life, but he has no intentions of leaving Montana behind. During the week, he stays at an apartment within walking distance of his office. The apartment has a “little fold-out sofa bed” and a Costco blow-up air mattress for when the kids are in town. Then on weekends he flies back to Montana. He doesn’t even have a car in Washington.

“Montana is home,” he said.