“Montana beef: Bad blood intensifies between Tester and Daines,” blares the headline in Politico, while the New York Times opines: “Friendly on the Senate Floor, Combatants on the Campaign Trail.”
So I ask Montana Sen. Steve Daines just how uncomfortable his new reality is after being elected chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, given his role is to elect enough GOP incumbents and challengers to retake the Senate in 2024?
“Jon [Tester] and I have a good relationship, we just vote very differently,” insists the NRSC chair, who notwithstanding the awkwardness is duty-bound to dethrone Montana’s senior senator, the powerful chair of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs who is seeking his fourth term in office.
“As a Montanan I think of it more like sports,” Daines tells me. “I was a football dad, I was a cheer dad, I was a baseball dad; I’ve been a golf dad watching my kids compete in sports in Montana. I liken it more to a sports analogy, where … when you’re on the field you’re seriously competing. You want your [child] to win. But when the game’s over, you go over to shake hands and we’re still all Montanans.”
Mapping out the NRSC game plan, Daines explains that Democrats in 2024 have to defend three isolated blue seats in blazing red states: West Virginia, Ohio and Montana.
“And in each of those states,” he points out, “every single statewide elected official is a Republican. It’s true in West Virginia, it’s true in Ohio, it’s true in Montana, with the exception of one Democrat U.S. senator. And that’s Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and Jon Tester in Montana.
“So those become primary [GOP] pickup opportunities, and it’s an option we don’t have again for the next two election cycles, where there’s zero Democrats up in red states in ’26 and zero up in ’28.”
Daines describes the current 2024 election cycle — where Republican incumbents have 11 seats to defend compared to 23 for Democrats — as “the best map we’ve had in 10 years.”
“So the math starts off in our favor right out of the gate,” he says.
Momentum aside, there’s another potentially ugly battle brewing, albeit this one surrounding an early but telling Republican primary survey that awards outspoken eastern Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale — who hasn’t even made up his mind yet whether to challenge Tester — a rather sizable lead (55 percent) over 37-year-old political newcomer Tim Sheehy (19 percent), a Bozeman businessman and former military officer endorsed by Daines.
In fact, Sheehy has the early support of Sens. Marco Rubio, John Barrasso, John Thune, Marsha Blackburn and Tom Cotton; not to mention Gov. Greg Gianforte and Rep. Ryan Zinke — even former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Does Daines put much stock in the initial J.L. Partners’ poll of 418 Republican voters?
“I don’t, but what I do find interesting,” he replies, “that the press didn’t seem to want to talk about was that poll showed both Sheehy and Rosendale beating Tester by four and five points respectively. I think that’s really the buried lead in that poll.
“Regarding the Sheehy numbers, I look at that and say that’s remarkable progress for somebody that had zero percent name ID six weeks ago, and it’s already up in kind of the 40 percent range in hard name ID. The fact he even has that kind of support with the limited campaign that’s been launched so far I think says a lot about the strength of Tim Sheehy as a candidate.”
Shifting to the 2024 GOP presidential primary, bearing in mind that Daines became the first top Republican to endorse Donald Trump in 2024, the NRSC chair doesn’t see any of the current GOP White House wannabes standing in the way of the former president, despite his two impeachments, four indictments, and 91 criminal felony counts.
“Looking at the numbers right now his support only continues to strengthen,” observes Daines. “So I think the challengers of President Trump will have a difficult time overcoming the big lead that he has.”
As for a potential rematch between President Joe Biden and Trump amid the buzz about aging presidents and lawmakers, I ask the senator if he sees a time when age restrictions and/or term limits are enacted for the legislative and executive branches of government?
“I don’t,” he replies. “I think ultimately the voters get to decide on the age question.”
Wrapping up our talk, I ask Daines how he’s personally faring under Bidenomics?
“I think it’s a disaster,” he laughs, recalling “an old line from Josey Wales” about peeing down somebody’s back and telling them it’s raining.
“Democrats are trying to sell Bidenomics to the American people and they’re not buying it — Montanans aren’t buying it,” says Daines. “Look at the gas prices of late, we’re back over four bucks a gallon. Look at mortgage rates, look at inflation; look at what’s happened to the people back home in Montana.
“It’s been a really, really difficult journey under this president. Their solution is more spending, higher taxes, [and] that’s exactly the wrong solution … and if they want to run on that in 2024, good riddance, it’s going to be a tough haul for them.”
John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.
CORRECTION: The original version of this column incorrectly stated that Montana Speaker of the House Matt Regier supported Tim Sheehy for U.S. Senate. Regier backs U.S. Congressman Matt Rosendale.
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