Senate Stakes

The Senate seat and control of the upper chamber are both decidedly in play

By Kellyn Brown

Turnout during the 2018 Montana midterm election was 71.5 percent, an unusually high number. The previous midterm, which took place in 2014 when Republican Sen. Steve Daines was first elected to the U.S. Senate, turnout was just 55.4 percent. And four years prior, despite a high-profile race between Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester and then Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg, 56.4 percent of voters cast a ballot.

What changed? And what does it mean for the upcoming general election that over the last decade has drawn between 70 and 75 percent of Montana voters? Will future midterms continue to be on par with presidential election years? Or are more people just voting now?

After all, while the high-turnout 2018 midterm featured a U.S. Senate and House race that each garnered some attention, the challengers were far from household names and both incumbents, Tester and Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, won by roughly 20,000 votes.

Perhaps the state’s voters of every political stripe are more engaged than before and the 2020 Montana general election will see an unprecedented number of cast votes. To be sure, this election cycle won’t lack money. And many of those dollars can be attributed to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s last-minute decision to challenge Daines in the U.S. Senate race.

The stakes are extraordinarily high. As has been widely reported, both Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and former President Barack Obama heavily recruited Bullock to run for the Senate seat following his failed presidential run. For months, according to reports, Bullock said he wasn’t interested, only to change his mind just days before the filing deadline on March 9.

What this means, at least according to Democrats, is the Senate seat and control of the upper chamber are both decidedly in play — although most forecasters still consider Daines a slight favorite in his race. What this means for the rest of us (in a state where advertising is still relatively cheap) is that we can expect the airwaves to be inundated with political ads for the foreseeable future.

Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, and GOP-held seats currently described as “toss-ups” include Arizona, North Carolina and, in some models, Maine. Alabama is expected to flip to a Republican and Colorado to a Democrat. In Montana, the needle moved from safe “R” to leans “R” with Bullock’s entrance.

Looking at previous elections, the most votes either Bullock or Daines have received in a statewide election is 255,000; Bullock during his reelection campaign in 2016 and Daines during his first run for statewide office in 2012 when he was elected to the U.S. House. The University of Montana Big Sky Poll released in February also provides little clarity. When asked about their job performance, 43 percent of respondents rated Daines as “excellent” or “good” and 46 percent gave Bullock the same combined marks.

In that same poll, however, Trump held a 20-point lead on nearly every potential Democratic challenger. Daines has touted his close relationship with and endorsement from the president as his reelection campaign begins in earnest. A day after Bullock announced, Tester sent out a fundraising email for him. Along with money, the governor will certainly need the help of the only other Democrat to win a statewide election in the last eight years.

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