Credit: Sara Diggins / Community News Service

In 2016, after conservative-leaning Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died nine months before that November’s presidential election, Republican Sen. Steve Daines, like other senators in his party, drew a line: They wouldn’t consider any new nominees put forth by then-President Barack Obama until after the upcoming election. 

“The U.S. Senate should exercise its constitutional powers by not confirming a new Supreme Court justice until the American people elect a new President and have their voices heard,” Daines said in a March 2016 statement, a month after Scalia died. “I will oppose any hearing or votes for President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court.”

Obama did forward a nomination, but Daines had his way after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to give the nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing in the Senate. 

When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last month, Daines, who is locked in a tight race against two-term and term-limited Montana Gov. Steve Bullock for his U.S. Senate seat, released a statement on Twitter the following day recognizing Ginsburg as “a historic trailblazer and a fearless leader” — and laying out a timeline for filling the seat left open by her death. 

This time Daines called for the Senate to confirm Trump’s then-unannounced nominee. 

“I took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America,” Daines said in response to a question about the flip-flop during a campaign debate Oct. 5. “The Constitution is very clear … The president shall nominate for a vacancy in the United States Supreme Court and the Senate will either confirm or reject that nominee. In 2016, the Senate rejected that nominee.”

Trump’s nominee, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett, is being questioned in confirmation hearings this week.

Daines’ allegiance in the heated partisan battle over confirming a new Supreme Court justice before the Nov. 3 election helps illustrate the incumbent’s strategy for winning re-election in a race that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate: enthusiastically embracing the Trump agenda, while warning of a threat from liberal politicians who, Daines says, want to alter the “Montana way of life.” 

In addition to his reversal on election-year Supreme Court nominations, Daines’ strategy has been telegraphed in recent weeks with his adoption of a Trump-mirroring tough-on-China stance, cheerleading for Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a walk-back of his previous support for mail-in voting in Montana after Trump’s campaign and other GOP groups sued the state for allowing counties to decide how to conduct the vote.

While Daines signaled support for the lawsuit’s claims — that Bullock illegally allowed counties to decide how to conduct their elections, and that mail-in voting would lead to fraud — a judge called that latter claim “fiction” in dismissing it in September, saying there is no evidence of any mail-ballot fraud in recent Montana elections. The Supreme Court denied the GOP’s appeal last week. 

Daines subsequently re-affirmed his support for mail-in voting. 

“He’s gone all-in on Trump. I am not aware of a single time ever when Daines has criticized the president or said that he disagrees with the president, not a single time,” said Robert Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana. “He’s absolutely one of the leading Trump supporters in all of Congress.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, pictured with President Donald Trump at the White House in 2017. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sen. Steve Daines

In a September interview with Montana Free Press, Daines reinforced that assessment.

“When Montanans go to vote, though, they’ll see Steve Daines standing with us, with President Trump, to protect the Montana way of life,” Daines said. “I am proud to stand with President Trump, so I think it’s very much a strength.”

Most analysts agree that the Senate race will likely track with Trump’s support in Montana, and how much of that support Daines can capture.

Trump won Montana in 2016 by almost 20%. And while he will likely win the state again, polls suggest it will probably be by a smaller margin, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a politics and campaign newsletter. 

That makes it Bullock’s task to peel away previous or current Trump voters who are willing to cross party lines in a statewide election. Voters did just that in 2016, when Bullock defeated Republican opponent Greg Gianforte by 3.8%, with Gianforte underperforming Trump’s 56.5% of the state’s vote by 10%.

“If you assume that Trump is going to carry the state again, then Steve Bullock has to do something that is not unprecedented, but it doesn’t happen that often, which is that he would have to defeat an incumbent senator of the party that’s also carrying the state for president,” Kondik said. 

Meanwhile, analysts and pollsters say, the presidential race in Montana is shaping up to be somewhat tighter than in 2016, with the most recent publicly released poll, conducted by Emerson College Oct. 5-7, showing Trump leading Biden 56% to 43%. 

That leaves Daines needing to hold onto as many Trump votes as possible in a state with a long history of ticket splitting, and in a race against a candidate with a track record of coaxing voters across party lines, Saldin said.

Following a failed bid for the Democratic nomination for president, and after multiple public declarations that he had no interest in running for the Senate, Bullock met in February with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who encouraged Bullock to enter the race. Bullock entered the race on the day of the filing deadline, March 9. 

Bullock’s entrance in the race, Saldin said, turned the contest from a presumptive runaway for Daines to a footrace between two of Montana’s most prominent politicians. 

“I think Bullock was really probably the only Democrat who could give him a real run for his money,” Saldin said. “Two established, big-time figures who are leaders in their party, that’s just not something we’ve seen in Montana for a long time.”

The suddenly competitive race drew immediate national attention. And with control of the U.S. Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 53-47 advantage, potentially hinging on the outcome, it also attracted a flood of money. 

Montanans have been bombarded with political advertising — more than 44,000 digital and broadcast television ads between Labor Day and the end of September, the most of any Senate race in the U.S. during that span, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. As of the end of June, Daines and Bullock had raised about $22.7 million between them. Outside groups have spent a collective $71.7 million on the two candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website. Combined, the race will likely set a record for spending in a Montana race.

Bullock’s apparent acquiescence to national Democrats’ overtures — Bullock has said his family convinced him to run — has given Daines an opportunity he has frequently exploited: claiming Bullock will be a rubber stamp for Democratic leadership, which Daines says could lead to stricter gun control, “government-controlled” health care and liberal judges being appointed to federal courts.

Bullock’s previous statements supporting Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives and a 2019 statement about being a “single issue voter” in the election — that issue being defeating Trump — have also been used against him. 

“Steve Bullock, a year ago tonight, stood up and said he wants to see the president of the United States impeached and removed from office,” Daines said in the race’s second debate in late September. Presuming that Trump will be reelected, he asked voters, “How do you expect him to go back and work with President Trump?”

Though Daines believes his unwavering support of Trump is a strength, he said that he has pushed Trump on issues that benefit Montanans, pointing to the president’s eventual support for the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill funding the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund that was introduced by Daines and sponsored by Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, another Republican whose seat is considered vulnerable in November. 

Daines’ attempt to paint Bullock as a Trojan Horse for “socialist” revolution was on display at the second Senate debate in late September, when Daines warned about a “federal takeover” of health care. Bullock has said he doesn’t support the single-payer Medicaid-for-all proposals that Daines apparently referred to. 

“What I am most concerned about is the direction D.C. is headed,” Daines said, positioning himself as a check on a House of Representatives he labels “far-left.” 

“You put Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden in charge of Washington, you’ll see a federal takeover of the health care system.”

Kondik said Daines’ strategy is to be expected in a state that regularly votes red in presidential contests. “The Republicans [are] going to try to make Bullock seem like as much of a national Democrat as they can,” he said, “and Bullock is going to try to run essentially as his own man.”

Bullock, for his part, is attempting to reach beyond the Democratic base, touting bipartisan accomplishments like enacting a Medicare expansion that as of Aug. 1 provides health care coverage to 86,533 adult Montanans, and a 2015 campaign finance law that requires dark money groups to disclose their spending on political races in Montana.    

“This is about leadership [and] who’s going to fight for Montana in the Senate,” Bullock said in an interview with MTFP. “Folks are frustrated that D.C. doesn’t work for them. Serving in the executive branch, this hasn’t been about just partisan talking points or giving speeches, it’s actually about getting stuff done.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock files to run for U.S. Senate while his family looks on. Pictured in the background, from left to right, are daughters Caroline and Alexandria, wife Lisa, and son Cameron. Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP

And Bullock does make a point of his opposition to elements of the Democratic Party platform, including its support for a ban on new oil and gas permitting on public lands and its call to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system “from top to bottom.” He’s also denied that he is in favor of a carbon tax — a Democratic position that Daines has frequently pinned on Bullock. 

At the same time, Bullock has turned the rubber-stamp accusation on Daines, saying the incumbent too frequently embraces Republican agendas like attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would mean the end of Medicaid expansion, and Daines’ vote for Trump’s 2017 tax bill, which Bullock says unfairly favors the wealthy.

That guilty-by-party strategy was apparent during the race’s third and final debate on Oct. 10. Bullock said, “Montanans want a leader, not a lapdog.” Daines mentioned Pelosi or Schumer more than 20 times and warned of “liberal tyranny” if Democrats gain control of the Senate. 

The advertisements have argued endlessly about who’s been a better steward of the state’s public lands, who is more beholden to special interests, who walks in blind lockstep with party leadership and which candidate would help gut or save health care. 

But what is more likely to sway the election in the closing weeks — aside from Trump’s level of support in Montana — is the status of the state’s coronavirus outbreak, according to Saldin. At least initially, he said, Bullock received high marks for his handling of the pandemic, boosting his favorability. 

And Bullock has used the state’s coronavirus response to bolster his case. 

“[At] the same time I was asking Montanans to stay at home and shelter in place so we could bend the curve, the president was saying it’d all be open by Easter,” Bullock said during the first Senate debate

Bullock’s response to the pandemic, like that of many other governors, has been rated much higher than Trump’s, according to a recent survey

Despite public opinion to the contrary, Daines has applauded Trump’s pandemic response, saying he believes presidential leadership has helped speed development of a coronavirus vaccine and treatments. In an interview with MTFP and elsewhere, Daines has skirted questions about Bullock’s handling of the crisis, saying the issue shouldn’t be politicized. Daines has, though, criticized Bullock during debates for the state’s pace in distributing federal relief money. 

Daines has also claimed credit for his own role in securing CARES Act relief funds and billions in funding for vaccine development. 

“President Trump has led boldly,” Daines said during the first debate, held virtually, in August. “I’m grateful for his leadership in this very, very difficult time.”

But while Bullock’s leadership profile got a boost from the COVID crisis, a spike in cases like the state is currently experiencing could work against him, Saldin said. 

While Montana initially had some of the nation’s lowest per capita infection and death rates, the state has experienced sharp increases in new cases in recent weeks. Bullock has so far declined to enact new statewide orders to address the uptick. As of Oct. 12, Montana ranked third in the nation for new weekly cases per capita.

“What happens if we see a real spike here in Montana at some point prior to the election?” Saldin said in late September. “Just from a political standpoint, that would probably be bad news for Bullock.”

Recent polling shows a close and fluctuating race in the final weeks of the campaign. The Cook Political Report has the race listed as a toss-up. Sabato’s Crystal Ball has the race leaning Republican

A New York Times and Sienna College poll released Sept. 20 shows Daines leading Bullock 45% to 44%. The same poll gives Trump, with 49%, a 7-point edge over Biden in Montana. 

The most recent poll, released by Montana State University on Wednesday, showed Bullock at 49% with a two point lead. 97% of Democrats and 67% of independent voters said they backed Bullock, while 88% of Republicans said they’re backing Daines.

“For the Democrats to win this race, they need to have their base behind them, a big solid lead from independent voters and hope for Republican defectors, all of which we see,” said MSU political science professor David Parker in a press release. “Bullock has gained some ground. That’s why the race is close, and he is in the lead.”  

Even so, Kondik regarded the race as Daines’ to lose, especially if Trump wins the state by more than two or three percentage points. The early October Emerson College poll that gave Trump a 13-point lead over Biden in Montana has Daines at 53% and Bullock at 43%, with 5% of respondents undecided. 

“Daines doesn’t seem to have horrible problems,” Kondik said. “The Democrats are attacking him on things like health care and other factors that are standard Democratic attack lines, [but] it’s not like Daines is under indictment or has some sort of huge scandal or something.”

Bullock, on the other hand, “is a successful two-term Democratic governor of the state that leans red and certainly has a very disproportionately Republican Legislature, and he’s managed to get some things through that Republican Legislature,” Saldin said.

Which candidate comes out on top can lay claim to victory in the most expensive — and arguably most consequential — race in Montana history.

* This story was updated Oct. 14, 2020, to include recent poll results.

Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.