Montana’s High-Stakes Senate Race

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines make their cases for who should represent ‘Montana values’ in Washington

By Tristan Scott
U.S. Senator Steve Daines tours the Glacier Rail Park and CHS Mountain West Co-op facilities in Kalispell on July 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

During a campaign stop in the Flathead Valley this summer to debut a bipartisan bill aimed at increasing forest management, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines shared that he’d spent the weekend summiting Alex Diekmann Peak, a nearly 10,000-foot mountain named in tribute to the late conservationist who helped furnish permanent protections on more than 23,000 acres of forested land near Whitefish.

Straddling the Lee Metcalf Wilderness boundary in Montana’s Madison Valley, the previously unnamed prominence was dedicated in honor of Diekmann through a bipartisan act of Congress in 2018, two years after the public lands steward died following a battle with cancer, at the age of 52.

Daines, a Republican, worked in concert with Montana’s entire delegation to usher passage of the Alex Diekmann Peak Designation Act, a rare sign of bipartisan cohesion on a piece of legislation, albeit a symbolic one.

Now, Daines is locked in a tight reelection race with Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock — a staunch defender of public lands in his own right — and the incumbent senator has been working aggressively to convince Montanans that he’s the better bet to protect the Treasure State’s iconic lands and waters.

But as Daines touts his record as a “conservative conservationist,” and draws attention to his recent role in passing the Great American Outdoors Act, which provided full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), his critics say the senator’s record was more textured before the political sands shifted in his favor.

While Bullock acknowledged that passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is one of the great modern conservation success stories, he accused Daines of taking credit for a bill only when the political timing was in his favor, and of turning his back on the environment whenever it’s more politically expedient.

Gov. Steve Bullock has his temperature checked before touring the alternate care facility under construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the top floor of Montana Children’s hospital at Kalispell Regional Healthcare on May 21, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“That was a tremendous accomplishment that so many people have been fighting for, going back decades,” Bullock said. “I’m happy Steve Daines was a champion of the bill, but you need to be a champion of public lands for more than just an election cycle. You need to be a champion always, even when it’s not politically popular.”

The two candidates are vying for a seat considered pivotal in determining if Democrats will be able to wrest the majority from Republicans on Nov. 3, and their campaigns have broken state fundraising records in a race that has garnered national attention for months.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a tossup, and experts have identified Montana as a potential tipping point for Senate control, leading to record-breaking spending that recently topped $75 million.

Meanwhile, a slate of familiar issues continues shaping the race, including health care, the economy, taxes, and the environment, while the unique circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have also been a prominent factor.

Bullock, 54, is barred by term limits from seeking a third term in the governor’s mansion. He entered the Senate race in March, following a presidential bid that failed to gain traction. The beginning of his candidacy coincided with the first wave of coronavirus in Montana, and Bullock was praised for his swift response in the spring, including a shutdown order that experts say helped keep the virus at bay.

President Donald Trump won Montana by 20 points in 2016, the same year that Bullock won reelection, and the governor’s entry into the race put the Senate seat squarely in play for Democrats, who must win at least three other seats in November to gain control of the upper chamber.

Daines, 58, has Trump’s endorsement and has praised the president for his handling of the pandemic. He’s been critical of Bullock’s leadership during the health crisis, saying the governor has spent just a fraction of the money the federal government delivered to the state through a relief package.

The former businessman was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, following two years as Montana’s lone representative in the U.S. House.

Each candidate has gone to great lengths to draw distinctions from the other — Daines by pointing to his success as a businessman prior to beginning a career in public service, and Bullock by highlighting his work as an attorney representing organized labor before becoming Montana’s attorney general in 2008.

But both Daines and Bullock continue to jostle for position on the public lands platform, which in recent years has become a critical pillar in Western politics.

Bullock and Daines have each made public lands a key issue while stumping in the Flathead, and have sought to cast themselves as champions for sustainable management and access and the other candidate as a bad actor.

Most recently, Bullock was critical of Daines’ initial support of William Perry Pendley to lead the Bureau of Land Management, rallying conservation groups who have long called on Pendley to resign, citing a conflict of interest resulting from his work as an advocate for federal land transfers. As a private attorney, Pendley litigated against Montana’s stream access law and represented oil and gas interests attempting to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine region adjacent to Glacier National Park, and a sacred area to members of the Blackfeet Nation.

Bullock filed a lawsuit to keep Pendley from heading up the Bureau of Land Management, and wrote Montana’s landmark opinion permitting public stream access when he was the state’s Attorney General in 2009.

“My opponent supported Pendley, who sued to take away stream access laws, and I sued to kick him out of office,” Bullock said. “We know that climate change is an issue, but Steve Daines doesn’t want to talk about that because he’s too busy working for corporate interests.”

Still, Daines points to earlier instances that he stood up for conservation measures, including as a freshman senator when he supported the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which banned new energy development on 430,000 acres of wild and scenic river corridor along the western edge of Glacier Park. He’s often characterized Montana as “a little bit John Denver and a little bit Merle Haggard” when it comes to balancing extractive industries with environmental protections, and said striking that balance is critical to keeping Montana a natural resource state.

Meanwhile, a committee commissioned by Bullock to study climate change in Montana offered carbon pricing, which is a tax on fossil fuels, as one of 50 suggestions for the state to explore to reduce greenhouse gases. During his unsuccessful run for president, Bullock told the Washington Post carbon pricing should not be off the table so long as it did not disproportionately affect low-income communities.

Daines has called carbon pricing a job-killer for Montana and said that other countries, such as China, must work to reduce emissions.

“We need to keep these natural resource jobs going in Montana,” Daines said, accusing Bullock of building ties to Democrats in Washington who would appoint “far-left justices” to the U.S. Supreme Court who would interfere with energy development.

“We can’t let that happen to our country,” Daines said.

While Bullock says he does not support current carbon tax proposals, he said lobbyists and special interests have presented a barrier in the way of moving forward on addressing climate change.

“You’re either on the bus or you’re under it,” Bullock said on the issue of climate. “I think Steve Daines has had his head in the sand and his hand in the pockets of the oil and gas industry, which is why he doesn’t want to have this conversation.”