HELENA — Republican Steve Daines is looking to capitalize on the Democrats having to switch candidates late in the campaign to win a seat long-coveted by the GOP and help push the party closer to control of the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. House seat Daines is giving up after just one term for his Senate try appears to be a closer race, with both Republican Ryan Zinke and Democrat John Lewis making their first run for federal office.
The two federal races top the ballot Tuesday in an election in which voters also will be asked to decide two races for the Supreme Court, one for Public Service Commission, 125 legislative seats, multiple judgeships and two legislative referendums.
At the top of the ticket is the race between Daines, Democrat Amanda Curtis and Libertarian Roger Roots. Daines became widely viewed as the front-runner once U.S. Sen. John Walsh dropped out after The New York Times revealed he plagiarized a 2007 research project required for a master’s degree at the U.S. Army War College.
Curtis, math teacher and one-term state legislator from Butte, was chosen to replace Walsh as the Democratic nominee in August in hopes that the political unknown would energize the party and win the seat that former Sen. Max Baucus held for more than three decades.
She faced a difficult task of building a campaign from scratch less than three months before Election Day, with Daines millions of dollars ahead of her in fundraising and widespread name recognition from his first congressional term.
Curtis has campaigned on her working-class ties, saying she would work for middle-class Montanans rather than corporate or special interests. Daines’ campaign has been focused on improving the economy and reducing government regulations that hinder development.
Republicans need to win a net six seats to take control of the Senate from the Democrats.
Daines’ Senate campaign gives the Democrats a chance at winning a House seat that has been in Republican hands since the mid-1990s. They chose John Lewis, a longtime aide to Baucus who is making his first run for office, who has campaigned on cooperating to restart a stalled Congress, keeping federal lands public and investing in renewable energy resources.
Former state Sen. Ryan Zinke emerged the winner of a bruising and expensive Republican primary to take on Lewis. Zinke has run on his military past as a former Navy SEAL commander and touting domestic energy development as a panacea for a slate of national woes.
Lewis and the Montana Democrats have tried to cast doubt on Zinke’s military background by calling for him to release all of his military records. When he did, they contained mostly stellar evaluations and promotion recommendations, but also cited him for “lapses of judgment” for travel expense reports for two trips he took back home to Montana.
The Democrats also criticized the Whitefish Republican for the support he received from Special Operations for America, an independent-expenditure group that Zinke founded and headed just weeks before he announced his candidacy.
Zinke attempted to strike back by painting Lewis as a co-author of the widely unpopular Affordable Care Act, an allegation Lewis has strongly and repeatedly denied.
The third candidate in the race is Libertarian Mike Fellows.
In the Supreme Court races, former solicitor general Lawrence VanDyke is attempting to unseat Justice Mike Wheat in a nonpartisan campaign that has seen an influx of outside money from Republican and conservative groups supporting VanDyke. Wheat’s supporters have fought back with their own ads, and Wheat has lamented the partisan tinge the race has taken on.
In the other race, Billings attorney W. David Herbert is challenging Justice Jim Rice.
Democrats are hoping to make gains in the Republican-controlled Legislature with a full slate of candidates and with the help of redrawn districts following the 2010 Census.
Republicans now hold a 29-21 advantage in the state Senate and a 61-39 edge in the House