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Gov. Steve Bullock quit the Democrats’ presidential contest in December, then announced his campaign a few months later to oust Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines. Bullock now finds himself in one of the nation’s most closely watched election fights of 2020 — a toss-up race that could help flip the U.S. Senate from Republican to Democratic control and make way for national climate action.

This story also appeared in InsideClimate News

Democrats need to win four seats held by Republicans to reclaim the Senate majority, or three GOP seats and a Democratic White House for a tie-breaking vice president’s vote. That’s why a New York Times opinion piece described Bullock, who’s won praise for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as “the most important person on the planet.”

During his presidential run, Bullock told the Washington Post that he favored a “more focused” clean-energy program than the Green New Deal, and said U.S. climate policy “must be ambitious, durable…[and have] a bipartisan foundation.” Although he opposed Obama-era fracking rules, Bullock told the Post he supported significant increases in renewables, energy efficiency and investment in carbon capture, along with reversing the Trump administration’s fuel-efficiency-standard rollbacks and withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Bullock began building his climate bona fides in his second term as governor, beginning with a statewide climate assessment in 2017. Last year, he requested the Montana Climate Solutions Plan, which was released Sept. 9, and enlisted his state in the U.S. Climate Alliance. Actions like these might be years behind efforts by more climate-concerned Western states, but Bullock’s leadership on the issue moves the conversation forward in a state where mining and fossil-fuel interests have historically dominated politics.

“We can see [the climate changing] right here in Montana in longer, more intense fire seasons, and the loss of ice in Glacier National Park each year,” Bullock’s campaign web page says. “By making smart policy decisions, we can mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture, the environment, and public lands, while protecting jobs and investing in new industries.”

There’s no question the GOP has been worried about a Democrat unseating the incumbent, Daines.

One sign: The GOP secretly paid $100,000 for a signature drive to get a ticket-splitting Green Party candidate on the 2020 ballot — without involving the state or national organizers for the Greens. Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton certified the Green Party candidate’s name to appear on the ballot, but the move was nixed by state courts and ultimately turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court.

DAINES BURNISHES HIS ENVIRONMENTAL CREDENTIALS

Montana’s Republican senator has made protecting Montana outdoor values an enduring theme in his pitch to voters. With Montana declared a “toss-up” state over the summer, the environment — and even climate policy — began to play a bigger role in Daines’ campaign to retain his Senate seat.

He stepped up efforts to green his image last fall, beginning with his partnership with another vulnerable western Republican, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, to end GOP resistance to reauthorizing the wildly popular Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Congressional Republicans had let the law lapse, but Daines and Gardner succeeded in persuading leaders to put it back on the Washington agenda.

In March, the duo announced that they’d convinced President Donald Trump to sign a bill securing permanent funding for the LWCF, which has helped finance park and conservation projects nationwide. After it was signed into law, Daines edged ahead in the polls.

Trump also helped Daines dodge a bullet by withdrawing William Perry Pendley’s name for leadership of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. A conservative lawyer and self-described sagebrush rebel, Pendley was targeted by conservation and green groups for advocating the sale of federal land and other controversial stands.

As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Daines would have been forced to vote on advancing Pendley’s name to the Senate floor had the administration not withdrawn the nomination. In contrast, Bullock took the nomination to federal court, suing to block the nominee from becoming the BLM’s leader or from continuing as “acting” director, as Pendley has been for the past year.

Throughout his first term, Daines’ statements about climate change closely paralleled the GOP party line. He called the Paris climate agreement “a bad deal” and credited fracking for reducing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions by increasing the use of natural gas. He cast many environmental controls and climate proposals as “radical” policies that would undermine freedoms that Montanans cherish.

“When you look at some of these crazy ideas like the Green New Deal, the way I look at this is we need to ensure that we find policies that can be bipartisan and that also support Montana’s diverse energy portfolio,” he told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “The balance is what Montanans want to see. They want to see us protecting the environment … as well as ensuring we can have affordable, reliable energy.”

The contrast between the Montana Senate candidates on climate exploded into full view late in August after reports that the conservative Daily Caller had leaked the draft plan developed by Bullock’s Climate Solutions Council. A comprehensive analysis, the draft included advice to consider what Montana has to gain and lose from federal and regional carbon pricing proposals, a point that prompted dissent by four of the council’s 41 members.  

Daines immediately shot off a letter to Bullock and shared it on Twitter. “You still support a job-killing carbon tax,” he said.

Bullock responded with a letter of his own, shared in a tweet: “As governor, I have consistently brought together diverse groups of Montanans to find bipartisan solutions. This is an attack on these collaborative efforts and knowingly dishonest to the people of Montana”.

Soon after, Bullock disowned the carbon-tax proposal. “I do not support any of the proposals for national carbon tax in Congress,” the Missoulian quoted him as saying. “I do, however, support this council’s recommendation to have a seat at the table.”

THE TAKEAWAY

Climate change might not be the issue driving all Montanans to the polls, but the fight over Daines’ Senate seat will have implications nationally — not only on climate policy, but on every other issue caught in the partisan fray.

That helps explain why political action committees are playing such a big role in the Montana Senate campaigns this year. Republican and Libertarian groups have spent more than $16 million to defeat Bullock, while Democratic PACs and others opposed to Daines have spent more than $14 million through June 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In fact, that combined opposition spending of more than $34 million is greater than the sums the Montana Senate campaigns have reported spending.

If Democrats succeed in winning the seats they need to gain a majority, or a tie-breaking vote by a Democratic president, they might be able to start advancing climate action, including policies to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change, and begin shifting the economy away from fossil-fuel dependence.

But the answer won’t be known until voters have their say on Nov. 3, after a dozen close Senate races like Montana’s are finally decided.


This story is part of an InsideClimate News series focusing on climate change in 11 key Senate races on the ballot in November.


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Judy Fahys

Judy Fahys writes for InsideClimate News and occasionally produces audio stories. She used to cover the West from Washington, D.C., but made a course correction and settled in Salt Lake City so she can actually enjoy the wild places (and people) in her stories. You can reach her at judy.fahys@insideclimatenews.org.