U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, Montana’s lone congressman, is making an aggressive play for the U.S. Senate seat and has emerged as a heavy favorite despite facing two opponents in the June 3 Republican primary.
Meanwhile, this year’s appointment of incumbent U.S. Sen. John Walsh, a strong Democratic primary favorite, may or may not serve to his advantage this fall, but he is expected to prevail next month despite challenges by a pair of Democrats.
This year’s Montana Senate race is considered one of the most important in the nation as Republicans dispatch a vigorous, well-funded campaign to procure a Senate seat that has eluded the party since 1913 – one of just two seats nationwdie that the GOP hasn’t claimed in more than a century.
Gov. Steve Bullock named Walsh in February as a successor to the seat vacated by former six-term senator Max Baucus, who became the American ambassador to China.
Walsh already had declared himself a candidate for the Senate seat after Baucus announced last spring that he would not run for re-election in 2014.
Democratic supporters hoped the move would elevate the profile of Walsh, a career National Guardsman and first-term lieutenant governor at the time he was appointed, but political scientists say the sitting senator is just as likely to be hindered by the appointment as he is helped.
Even so, despite the state’s image as a conservative-leaning stronghold of low taxes, little government and libertarian values, Montana voters have a long history of electing Democrats to the Senate.
In 2012, Sen. Jon Tester won a second term, despite Montana voters turning out in droves to support then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – by a nearly 14-point margin – while simultaneously electing Daines to his first term as a congressman.
Daines, a former software firm executive, has branded himself as a counterbalance to Democratic policies on health care, spending and development. He has raised $3.6 million in campaign funds and had about $2.2 million left in his campaign account as of March 31.
Walsh had raised $1.5 million and had $697,000 cash on hand as of March 31.
Daines’ opponents in the GOP primary are state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula, who’s been campaigning for the seat for more than a year, and Susan Cundiff of Missoula, a surprise candidate who filed on the last day that candidates could get on the primary ballot.
Edmunds has raised about $36,000, including a $9,500 personal loan to his campaign, and had about $1,600 in his campaign fund March 31. Cundiff said she has raised between $4,000 and $5,000.
With more than $2 million to spend on the race – nearly four times as much as Walsh’s campaign, according to federal campaign data – and public polls putting Walsh behind Daines by double digits, Daines has emerged as an early favorite.
Even though the two candidates face primary challengers, both are expected to advance to the general election.
“I think Daines has a cakewalk and Walsh, I don’t know if it’s quite as much of a cakewalk, but it would be a shock if Walsh lost (in the primary),” University of Montana associate professor of political science Robert Saldin said.
Running against Walsh in the three-way competition for the Democratic nomination – for a seat held since 1978 by Baucus – are Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.
Adams, a political newcomer, and Bohlinger, Montana’s lieutenant governor under Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, are trailing Walsh in funds, but Adams recently donated more than $200,000 of his own money to his campaign.
“One of the notable things about the Walsh campaign is that he is basically ignoring his primary opponents,” Saldin said. “It is basically all about Steve Daines.”
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