David Parker (l) and Mike Dennison

There are two big takeaways from a poll released this week by Montana State University: Montanans are definitely concerned about economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Steve Daines looks to be very much in play now that Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has been able to capitalize on a statewide pandemic response that has, thus far, yielded relatively favorable results.

The timing of Bullock’s entry into the race appears fairly auspicious. As Mike Dennison, chief political reporter for the Montana Television Network, puts it, “He gets in on the last day, March 9; he raised $3.3 million in three weeks; the pandemic hits; he’s in the news every single day.” Dennison notes that Bullock’s official responses to the pandemic have been largely based on the recommendations of public health experts, and adds, “He’s getting incredible exposure, and not spending a single dime of his campaign money doing it. It’s just a real political bonanza for Gov. Bullock.”

But how to account for another finding of the poll: that Montanans still favor re-election of President Donald Trump over the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden?

“A lot of the attitudes toward Trump are already baked in, regardless of what it is. But if there’s anxiety, that anxiety needs to be expressed somewhere, and it seems to be expressed elsewhere, down-ballot, at least in our senate numbers,” says Dr. David Parker, head of Montana State University’s Department of Political Science, which helped organize the poll.

So how might the pandemic — and state and federal efforts to respond to it with stay-at-home orders, stimulus checks and relief funds — ultimately impact voter preferences? And how might Montana’s top U.S. Senate candidates tailor their messages to reach voters who are leery of misinformation and false narratives as the nation seeks a return to normalcy?

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Dennison thinks it will come down to the candidates’ records. He tells Adams, “I really think the race is going to be fought out on how each of them has responded to this pandemic, and also, what is their record? What is Steve Bullock’s record as governor? What is Steve Daines’ record as senator?”

Dennison and Parker are featured on this week’s episode of the Montana Lowdown podcast, a weekly publication of Montana Free Press hosted by editor-in-chief John S. Adams.

Alex McKenzie has worked with a diverse array of start-ups and nonprofit organizations. He is a former record producer and music journalist, has additional experience working in agriculture and food security, and previously operated his own dairy business. He lives in southwest Montana. Follow him on Twitter.