Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines got a campaign assist early last week from former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who traversed the state to share her assessment of just how critical Montana’s 2020 senate race is. Daines himself had a busy week back in Washington, announcing the impending introduction of a bill that speaks to his stance on “court packing” and denouncing Amtrak’s reduction in rail service along the Hi-Line. The pandemic became a particular focus for Daines as he asked FEMA to assess Montana’s need for additional federal relief and urged the CDC to put boots on the ground in Yellowstone County to assist with rising COVID-19 case counts.

Coronavirus was also front-of-mind for Daines’ Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock, who cautioned last Tuesday that the state could face another economic slump if Montanans don’t take health guidelines more seriously. Bullock also dropped by a Missoula daycare program for an up-close look at where CARES Act dollars have gone before announcing new pandemic response measures Friday that include an avenue for anonymous compliance complaints. Perhaps his biggest election-related moment of the week came when he accompanied his daughter Caroline on a civic milestone.

A new set of polls sent mixed messages about Montana’s U.S. House race last week. One survey conducted by NBC Montana and 360 Strategies put Democrat Kathleen Williams and Republican Matt Rosendale in a dead heat with 46% each, while a recent New York Times/Siena College poll had Rosendale up with 50% to Williams’ 46%.

News broke Oct. 20 that Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte had loaned his campaign an additional $4 million, bringing his campaign war chest well above that of Democratic rival Mike Cooney. And MTN News’ Mike Dennison took a detailed look at the business background that ultimately put Gianforte in such an advantageous position. Meanwhile, Cooney’s campaign got dinged for campaign finance violations related to support from the Democratic Governors Association — just days before Gianforte’s camp was hit with violations concerning a much larger dollar amount.

Several statewide races became even more charged last week, starting with Democratic superintendent of public instruction candidate Melissa Romano’s criticism that incumbent Republican Elsie Arntzen had mishandled coronavirus relief funds for Montana schools. Court records emerged documenting a number of past allegations against Republican state auditor candidate Troy Downing by his ex-wife. And on Sunday, Lee Newspapers’’ Holly Michels revealed that a filing system touted by Republican secretary of state candidate and current deputy SOS Christi Jacobsen had resulted in duplicated financial charges for a number of businesses.

One final note: While Montana’s Senate race has attracted a barrage of national media attention over the past few months, an Oct. 21 story by New Yorker writer E. Tammy Kim took a different tack, examining not the race itself, but two distinct voter blocs that may well decide the outcome.

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VA agreement adds six beds as COVID cases and hospitalizations climb

As the number of Montanans hospitalized with COVID-19 reached its highest level since winter this week, Gov. Greg Gianforte said his administration has secured an agreement to make six hospital beds at the Fort Harrison VA medical center available for patients who don’t otherwise qualify for health care through the Veterans Affairs system.

Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.