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HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock filed Monday to challenge Sen. Steve Daines for his seat in the U.S. Senate, giving the incumbent Republican a daunting opponent in a race that could help decide which party controls the Senate following the 2020 elections.
Bullock’s candidacy, announced on the state’s March 9 filing deadline, also means liberal and conservative interest groups will likely inject millions of dollars in political spending into Montana’s 2020 elections.
In his announcement, Bullock touted bi-partisan economic development, health care, and campaign finance reform passed through the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature and signed into law during his two terms as governor.
“Even at a time of chaos and division, Democrats and Republicans have worked with each other and actually gotten some good stuff done,” he said. “I wish that Washington worked more like Montana. You look at some big challenges we’re facing and they won’t even tackle them.”
With Bullock’s name recognition, resume, and fundraising ability eclipsing other primary candidates, most of the other Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for U.S. Senate in Montana’s June 2 primary election exited the race in recent days.
Josh Seckinger, a Bozeman fly fishing guide, withdrew even before the official announcement, as rumors of Bullock’s candidacy circulated over the weekend. Nonprofit founder Cora Neumann of Bozeman announced she was dropping out within hours of the announcement, as did Bozeman resident Michael Knoles and Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins. Seckinger, Neumann, and Collins endorsed Bullock.
Energy engineer John Mues, however, said he would continue his campaign, and that he hopes to meet Bullock on primary debate stages.
“The U.S. Senate has a lot of attorneys and a lot of career politicians,” Mues said. “And it’s never been more dysfunctional.”
“We decided that I can either wish that Washington worked more like Montana, or that we could try to do something about it.”—Gov. Steve Bullock
Daines, a former tech company executive from Bozeman who is closing out his freshman Senate term, faces two Republican primary challengers: Dan Larson of Stevensville, and John Driscoll, a former Democratic lawmaker from Helena who has twice run for the U.S. House as a Democrat. Green Party candidates Wendi Fredrickson, of Helena, and Dennis Daneke of Lolo, as well as Libertarian Eric Fulton, of Whitefish, have also filed in the Senate race.
Montana’s other U.S. Senator, Democrat Jon Tester, was re-elected to a six-year term in 2018.
Bullock served one term as Montana’s attorney general before successfully running for governor in 2012. He is prevented from seeking re-election as governor by term limits. Bullock made an unsuccessful 2020 bid for U.S. President, suspending his presidential campaign in December.
The governor has been seen by many Democrats as the party’s best hope for winning Daines’ seat, a victory that could help tip control of the Senate away from Republicans, who hold a 53-47 majority. While campaigning for president, Bullock repeatedly denied he was interested in a Senate bid, telling a CNN town hall last summer that he was an “absolute no” on running against Daines.
Talking to reporters after signing his candidacy paperwork in the state Capitol Monday, Bullock said he had previously decided against running another campaign, preferring instead to devote time to family, as his eldest daughter is a few months away from leaving for college. He reconsidered, he said, based on conversations with his family.
“We decided that I can either wish that Washington worked more like Montana, or that we could try to do something about it,” he said, flanked by his wife, daughters, and son. “We decided that this wasn’t a time to be on the sidelines.”
High-profile national Democrats have been pressuring Bullock for months to challenge Daines. According to Politico, former President Barack Obama met privately with Bullock in Washington, D.C. last month and urged him run for the Senate. Bullock also met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in Montana last month, which Politico described as “a last-ditch effort to woo him to run for the Senate.”
While Bullock on Monday denied that the meetings were a significant factor in his decision, the Montana GOP has already attacked him for allegedly buckling to pressure from the national party, calling the governor “Chuck Schumer’s puppet” on Twitter.
Daines, elected to the U.S. House in 2012 and the U.S. Senate in 2014, has aligned himself closely with President Donald Trump, and touted the president’s endorsement when he filed for re-election Feb. 28.
“Nobody fights harder for Montana than @SteveDaines. Steve is a close friend of mine, a STRONG Conservative, and a tremendous supporter of our #MAGA Agenda,” the president wrote in a tweet that afternoon.
“We’re going to win this race because Steve Daines is always on Montana’s side fighting for more high-paying jobs, against big government and defending Montanans’ way of life,” campaign manager Shane Scanlon said in a statement provided by a Daines spokeswoman this week.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor and an elections analyst for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Bullock’s entrance into Montana’s U.S. Senate race moves the state from “safe Republican” to “leans Republican.”
“I don’t think it was a Democratic opportunity without him running,” Kondik said. “Daines is still favored, but Bullock certainly makes Montana a target for Democrats.”
Kondik said Democrats “are going to need to beat at least four incumbent Republican senators” to reach a 50/50 split in the Senate, “because they are likelier than not to lose Alabama.
“This is a really vital state seat for preserving the Republican majority,” Kondik said. “If they lose Montana, they could lose their majority. I’m sure Bullock’s donors made it clear to him that he’d be well-supported if he ran.”
John S. Adams contributed reporting.
The following candidates had filed for office as of 6 p.m. March 9. Primary election victors for each party will advance to the general election in November:
Tim Fox, Greg Gianforte, and Al Olszewski have filed as Republicans. Mike Cooney and Whitney Williams have filed as Democrats. Lyman Bishop has filed as a Libertarian and Robert Barb has filed as a Green Party candidate
U.S. House, statewide district
Joe Dooling, John Evankovich, Debra Lamm, Mark McGinley, Matt Rosendale, and Corey Stapleton have filed as Republicans. Kathleen Williams and Tom Winter have filed as Democrats. John Gibney has filed as a Green Party candidate. Incumbent U.S. Rep Greg Gianforte, a Republican, is running for governor.
Secretary of State
Bowen Greenwood, Christi Jacobsen, Brad Johnson, Forrest Mandeville, Kurt Johnson and Scott Sales have filed as Republicans. Bryce Bennett has filed as a Democrat. Current Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, a first-term Republican, is running for the U.S. House.
Jon Bennion and Austin Knudsen have filed as Republicans. Kim Dudick and Raph Graybill have filed as Democrats. Roy Davis has filed as a Green Party candidate. Current Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican facing term limits, is running for governor.
Superintendent of Public Instruction
Current Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, a Republican, has filed for re-election. Melissa Romano has filed as a Democrat. Kevin Leatherbarrow has filed as a Libertarian.
Nelly Nicol, Scott Tuxbury, and Troy Downing have filed as Republicans. Shane Morigeau and Mike Winsor have filed as Democrats. Roger Roots has filed as a Libertarian. Current State Auditor Matt Rosendale, a first-term Republican, is running for the U.S. House.
Public Service Commission District 2 (Billings/southeast Montana)
Kirk Bushman, Daniel Zolnikov, and incumbent Tony O’Donnell have filed as Republicans. Valerie McMurtry has filed as a Democrat.
Public Service Commission District 3 (Bozeman/Butte)
James Brown and Alan George have filed as Republicans. Tom Woods has filed as a Democrat. Rob Elwood has filed as an independent. Incumbent Roger Koopman, a Republican, is facing term limits.
Public Service Commission District 4 (Missoula/northwest Montana)
Will Deschamps, Champ Edmunds, and Jennifer Fielder have filed as Republicans. Daniel Carlino and Monica Tranel have filed as Democrats. Incumbent Bob Lake, a Republican, is facing term limits.
PSC District 1 (Great Falls/northeast Montana) and PSC District 5 (Helena/Kalispell) are out of cycle this election.
Montana Supreme Court
Justice Laurie McKinnon has filed for re-election, with challenges from Mike Black and Mars Scott.
Justice Jim Shea has filed for re-election without opposition.
The Montana Free Press 2020 election guide, updated on an ongoing basis, is available at montanafreepress.org/montana-2020.