It’s campaign season in Montana — and the political mudslinging is already giving our airwaves and social media networks the aura of a cattle feedlot. As candidates and political committees trade salvos, Montana Free Press will dissect the key political attack lines to dig out the facts embedded in the sludge. This is the fourth installment in our MuckWatch series.

THE MUCK

As incumbent Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Steve Bullock continue to campaign for U.S. Senate, Daines’ record working with, and in, China has become a campaign issue, with both sides using Daines’ record regarding the country as evidence that he would either advocate policies that benefit China at the expense of Montanans (the Bullock camp’s position), or is the representative Montanans need to bring jobs outsourced overseas back to America. 

Bullock’s campaign has attacked a Daines voting record they say shows that the incumbent looks out for companies that outsource jobs to countries like China, and has used Daines’ previous work for a company that cut U.S. jobs and expanded into China to bolster their claims. Montana Democrats have amplified the message with video ads.

At the same time, Daines has countered the charge by highlighting accomplishments — like working to open Chinese markets to millions of dollars worth of Montana beef in 2017 — while signalling a shift to a current priority of holding China accountable for its alleged role in spreading the global coronavirus pandemic. 

“China lied about the Coronavirus, putting the jobs and health of Montanans at risk,” a Daines advertisement from earlier this year said. “Senator Steve Daines is holding China accountable. Daines is leading efforts to break our dependence on China.”

THE FACTS

Before he entered politics, Daines worked for Procter & Gamble after graduating from Montana State University. Part of his tenure with the company included working in China, selling American products and helping open factories for the company.

His relationship with China continued as a U.S. senator, with Daines traveling to the country several times and earning a nickname from a Chinese official as “China’s ambassador in Congress” — a designation Democrats have used to attack Daines as being too cozy with the country.  

It’s true Daines worked for Procter & Gamble during years in which the company cut U.S. jobs and expanded in China, but the company has said the Democratic attacks, which date back to Daines’ first senatorial campaign in 2014, lack relevant context.  

Procter & Gamble representatives haven’t responded to a Montana Free Press request for comment, but have previously told media outlets that Daines was never involved in decision-making about eliminating jobs in the U.S. or opening factories in China when he worked for the company in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Daines says his work selling American products for Procter & Gamble in China is evidence that his China-related work benefited U.S. workers and companies. 

Now, with deaths tied to the COVID-19 pandemic topping 180,000, Daines has begun blaming China for the spread of the virus, saying he’ll hold the country accountable for allegedly covering up the severity of the outbreak in China if he is re-elected in November. 

While Democrats have attacked Daines for voting in favor of policies that would encourage  companies to send U.S. jobs to other countries, Daines claims responsibility for policies that benefit Montanans. For example, in 2017 he announced he had brokered an agreement with a Chinese retailer that would lead to its purchase of at least $200 million in Montana-sourced beef and the company’s construction of a yet-to-be-built beef processing plant in the state. He’s also taken credit for helping end a Chinese ban on American beef sales to China

THE CONTEXT

While Bullock’s campaign wants voters to believe Daines has worked to benefit China at the expense of Montanans and the U.S., Daines is trying to show voters he’ll be tough with a country that has become a political football in the ticket-topping race for president. 

In fact, Republican Senate candidates across the country are being encouraged to blame China for the pandemic in their campaign messaging. A 57-page April memo prepared by Republican strategists and sent to senate candidates by the National Republican Senatorial Committee details how candidates should address the pandemic, including a recommendation that candidates claim China accidentally released the virus and then hid the severity of the problem and information about the virus from other countries. 

Earlier this week, Bullock’s campaign said in a press release that Daines’ shift to a tough-on-China stance is disingenuous given his work history with the country, which included a stint living in China. 

“Steve Daines’ election year pivot can’t cover up his extensive record of helping start factories in China while his employer slashed thousands of American jobs,” Bullock campaign spokesman Sean Manning said in a press release this week“In the Senate, he voted to protect tax breaks for corporations that offshore American jobs to China. Montanans deserve a Senator who will look out for their interests first –– not big corporate interests that get rich offshoring American jobs.” 

In the race’s first debate earlier this month, Bullock again attacked Daines over his work in China for Procter & Gamble and said his record is evidence his policies would harm Montana workers. 

Daines campaign spokeswoman Julia Doyle responded to a request for comment about Daines’ previous work on China-related issues and how voters should reconcile Daines’ past dealings with the country and his current pledge to be tough on China after this story’s initial publication with an emailed statement that read, in part, “The Senator has been holding China accountable for 30 years. … Daines will continue holding China accountable and fighting to bring our jobs back to America.”

In the debate, Daines said his role with Procter & Gamble was not to shed U.S. jobs in favor of opening Chinese factories, but rather to increase sales of American products in China. He also pointed to his role in brokering Montana beef sales to China as proof his positions will be good for America and for Montana. 

“I was a young twenty-something chemical engineering graduate from Montana State University who went to market and sell great American brands like Crest toothpaste and Tide laundry detergent to beat Chinese brands,” Daines said. “You know what we did? We succeeded.” 


This story was updated Sept. 1, 2020, to include post-publication comment from the Daines campaign.

Chris Aadland covers tribal affairs in Montana as a Report for America corps member based in Billings. Before moving to Montana he covered the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.