BILLINGS — The Republican Party’s hold on the U.S. Senate could be decided by a tight race in Montana where Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will try to unseat first-term GOP Sen. Steve Daines.
The heavyweight battle has been one of the most closely watched Senate races in the U.S., with political groups and the campaigns pouring more than $100 million into the contest. That’s a record shattering figure for the sparsely populated state that dwarfed spending in much larger battlegrounds and subjected residents of Big Sky Country to a barrage of advertisements virtually any time they turned on their computer, television or radio or opened their mailbox.
Montana’s other congressional seat is also expected to be a tight contest with Republican Matt Rosendale seeking to fend off a challenge from former Democratic state lawmaker Kathleen Williams to keep Montana’s lone U.S. House seat in GOP hands in a streak that dates to 1997.
Williams lost her bid for the seat in 2018 but came closer than any Democrat in 20 years to winning. Polls suggest she has an even better chance this time around.
Rosendale, a former real estate developer, has hitched his campaign to President Donald Trump and stuck to the Republican party line, promising to protect the Second Amendment and end illegal immigration. Williams focused her campaign on her career in environmental conservation, and the promise of improved health care and public lands protection.
Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and the economy has loomed over both races, but the president didn’t come to Montana to stump for either candidate.
After Trump easily won Montana in 2016, Daines emerged as one of his loyalists and stuck with the president through the coronavirus pandemic, a faltering economy and civil unrest stirred by police killings of people of color.
Daines, a former business executive, was serving his first term in Congress six years ago when Democratic Sen. Max Baucus resigned to become ambassador to China. That opened the seat for the first time since 1978 and Bullock appointed then-Lt. Gov. John Walsh to fill it. Democrats hoped the ploy would give Walsh an advantage but he dropped out late in the race amid a plagiarism scandal, clearing the way for a Daines victory.
Bullock was a private attorney and then served two terms as Montana attorney general before his 2012 election to governor. While seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for president he adamantly rejected a Senate run, and moved to the left on issues including guns, which Daines would later use against him.
Under pressure from Democratic party leaders including former President Barack Obama, Bullock threw his hat in the ring in March, sticking with the themes that drove his presidential bid: expanded health care access and a pledge to bring a Montana ethos of practical problem solving to Washington.
Within a week of his entering the Senate race, the arrival of the coronavirus upended the state and Bullock was in the limelight as he issued orders closing schools and restaurants followed by a general stay-at-home directive.
With few virus cases in the first months, the pandemic appeared under control and Bullock’s campaign highlighted the state’s low infection rates. That gave way to soaring case numbers by fall, but Bullock hesitated to impose new restrictions as Daines criticized some that were already in place, such as spectator limits at school sporting events.
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