This article was reported in collaboration by High Country News and Montana Free Press
In late July, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines visited the small town of Cascade, on the Missouri River. The occasion: Spectrum’s announcement that it would bring broadband to the town’s nearly 800 residents. Many remote parts of the state still lack cellphone service, never mind high-speed internet. Daines framed the event as a victory, telling a TV station that he was on “a full-court press” to bridge the state’s digital divide.
“I’ve been told broadband is amazing,” said Mike Moore, 57, president of Cascade’s Stockmens Bank, in late September, about seven weeks after the Montana Republican’s visit. But he also allowed that the existing internet was “perfectly satisfactory.”
The bank lobby was closed because of COVID-19, but when I walked up to the drive-through window, Moore waved me inside to a back room with an elk mounted on the wall. Soon his father, Murry S. Moore, 81, the town’s mayor and the bank’s CEO, arrived on a motorized scooter. When it came to the upgrade, Mayor Moore said, “It’s not like I’m sitting at home waiting for it.”
There may be a digital divide in Angela or Busby, but Cascade is only 30 minutes from Great Falls. Why, I asked, was the announcement such a big deal? The mayor, who has sculpted white hair, shrugged: “It was just a political opportunity.’’
I had come to gauge their reaction to this year’s battle for one of the state’s two Senate seats: Daines, the Republican incumbent, versus Steve Bullock, the sitting Democratic governor. As one of the few races that could tip the balance of power in Washington, D.C., it has become increasingly nationalized, vicious and expensive. In such an atmosphere, any news can be sharpened into an advantage or a weapon. Montanans’ social media feeds are full of targeted micro-ads.
The outcome could threaten the state’s legacy of independent politics, where idea-based voters proudly split their tickets. Montana has not voted for a Democratic president since 1992; it has not voted for a Republican governor since 2000. This year, though, the races for governor, senator and Montana’s lone congressional seat could all go Republican, fundamentally shifting the state’s dynamic. The most closely watched contest, the Senate race, is too close to call.
The Moores are both Republicans who say they oppose big-government regulation, but their ideas span the aisle. Mayor Moore said he sometimes splits tickets. His son called the Affordable Care Act, which Daines has repeatedly voted to repeal, “a great deal.” His father said, “I kinda think anybody who wants Medicare should just be able to sign up for it.”
“But that’s what the Affordable Care Act does!” said Mike Moore. His father added that once you were on Medicare, you shouldn’t be able to back out.
I asked: “But isn’t that government regulation?”
“There’s your gray area right there,” said Mike.
“There’s your gray area,” echoed his father.
We had arrived at one of Montana’s paradoxes: For a state that prizes local control, Montana relies heavily on federal funding — for farm subsidies, for wildland firefighting, for health care. A few moments earlier, when I’d asked about this, Mayor Moore had smiled as though he pitied my lack of understanding. “Just give me the money and go home,” he said. He planned to vote for Steve Daines.
Montanans sometimes call the state a small town with long streets. But it might not remain small; out-of-staters are flocking here, fleeing the pandemic. Sen. Daines says he is fighting to preserve the “Montana way of life,” as though there is one such thing. Bullock says there are two kinds of people who move to Montana: those who come change it, and those who don’t.
The two Steves do not like each other. Bullock sometimes calls Daines “this guy.” When I asked Bullock if, after the campaign, he and Daines would put down their weapons and have dinner together, he laughed aloud. Daines, who has a reputation for avoiding serious questioning, did not participate in this story. “He likes safe space,” says Land Tawney, president of the public-lands advocacy group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
Bullock is steeped in Montana’s history of centrist, working-class politics. With his Filson jacket and cowboy boots, he is a throwback who rejects much of the Democratic Party’s national platform. Daines may be a hunter who says he is fighting to preserve “the Montana way of life,” but the company where he made his name, RightNow Technologies, helped usher in a high-tech boom that continues to transform the state. He offers a vision of free-market prosperity while moving publicly in lockstep with President Donald Trump, who is popular in Montana.
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Last year, Bullock made an ill-fated run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Scott Wolf, a conservative Livingston businessman and Daines supporter, told me he thought Bullock would have made a great “old-school Democratic president. But that doesn’t play anymore in the U.S.” When I traveled through the state, I heard versions of a similar nostalgia.
Choteau’s mayor, Chris Hindoien, a Republican in a nonpartisan seat, told me that the state’s centrists have “lost our voice.” He added, “There’ll never be another Mansfield.” Mike Mansfield looms above Montana’s political history: The even-keeled Irish American, who was born in New York and raised in Great Falls, Montana, served as Senate majority leader from 1961 to 1977. Duane Ankney, a conservative Republican state senator from Colstrip who sometimes votes with moderates, said Mansfield “wasn’t left or right, he was for the people of Montana.” But, he concluded, “Those politicians are gone forever.”
Bullock’s campaign tries to emotionally access this legacy. When touting his ability to pass legislation along with the Republican-majority state Legislature, he says he “wants to make Washington work more like Montana.” The airwaves are filled with venomous ads, funded both by the candidates and by national groups relying on dark-money support. (In 2015, Montana, with Bullock as a primary driver, passed a law requiring outside entities trying to sway local elections to disclose their funding. But the state government has no power over national races.) The radio from Great Falls to Glendive booms untruths: Daines has created more jobs in China than he has in Montana; Bullock is scheming with other Democrats to institute a radical, gun-less, socialist future.
“Who’s fact-checking this stuff?” asked Gerald Gray, 54, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and co-founder of a Billings advertising agency. “It’s not right.”
On Sunday, Sept. 20, about 60 people milled about in a strip-mall parking lot along the Missouri River in Great Falls. You could rent a backhoe here or gaze across the river at an oil refinery. Great Falls has a median household income of $45,620 and a poverty rate of 14.5%. The crowd was there for one man. A gleaming white Chevy Suburban pulled up, and out he sprang: Gov. Bullock, wearing a blue shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He dove into the performance, one hand squarely placed on a jutting hip, the other pointing as he boomed: “We could be better served in Washington!”
Seconds into the speech, Bullock said, “It was about two weeks before the filing date, and Caroline, our oldest, and my wife, Lisa, said, ‘We can’t be on the sidelines right now. If there’s anything we can offer to actually get things to work better, we ought to do it.’ And that’s what it’s all about!”
This was both offense and defense. After he ended his presidential run, Bullock said he would not enter the Senate race. But just two weeks before the filing deadline, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer flew to Montana to meet Bullock — a fact that Daines has trumpeted ever since. During the candidates’ first debate, a plaintive affair held over Zoom, Daines mentioned Schumer nine times. Bullock replied, “You have to run against me.” Still, he seems defensive about being perceived as a nationalized candidate.
Bullock, who was raised in Helena by a single mother, attended public school before heading first to California and then to Columbia Law School in New York. He returned home, working as legal counsel to Montana’s secretary of state and eventually serving as state attorney general. Many voters here prefer farmers to lawyers, but Bullock speaks Montana well. When I asked him what he was reading, he gave an answer that was almost too perfect: a James Patterson novel and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Bullock has a big bassy laugh. A woman who works in disability advocacy told me he’ll show up, park his big elbow on the desk and look you in the eye. He’ll tell you he feels your pain for five minutes, then disappears. But actual change is slow and halting. Bullock is not interested in overthrowing the system. He supports the Keystone XL pipeline, against the wishes of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, one of eight federally recognized tribal nations within state lines. Still, some Republican legislators believe he has moved left. “In the last four years, it’s been pretty hard to work with him,” said Ankney, who sponsored the dark-money bill. “He’s more worried about those that support him than good legislation.”
Daines, who avoids the press, sometimes holds call-in town halls with pre-screened guests. Bullock says he respects the press, but he tightly controls his public interactions, especially in comparison with Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester, who regularly meets constituents in open town halls. Ankney said that Bullock “does not want confrontation nor to explain himself.”
These days, the “Montana way of life” that Steve Daines talks about is rapidly changing in his hometown. For three years running, Bozeman, population 50,000, was the fastest-growing city of its size in the nation. That was before the COVID rush. The median home price in Gallatin County jumped by nearly $90,000 between July and August; it now exceeds $575,000. “Bozangeles,” as it’s known, is a place where you can see a moving truck, a sprinter van and a Cadillac Escalade within a single square block. In 2012, Steve Bullock won by 5 points here. In 2016, he won by 16.
The shining new construction is more pronounced on the south side of town, where open land leads down toward the Gallatin Range. Grace Bible Church, a large, modern-looking building, is near the heart of this recent growth. Just down the road from it is an orderly office park with sharply cut grass. This is the former headquarters of RightNow Technologies, the Bozeman that Steve Daines’ family built.
White Montanans like to count their generations backward on one hand; Daines identifies as a “fifth-generation Montanan,” since his great-great-grandmother, a Norwegian immigrant, homesteaded near Conrad. He was born in Van Nuys, California, but raised in Bozeman by Clair and Sharon Daines. He attended Bozeman High School and studied chemical engineering at Montana State University. He went into the private sector, first with Proctor and Gamble, working extensively in China. Later, he joined his father’s contracting business. According to media reports, he met Greg Gianforte through family connections, and the two started backpacking together, bonding over their shared faith. Gianforte, a tech entrepreneur who moved from New Jersey, is a member of the congregation at Grace; Daines also attended for a time.
In 1999, Steve and Clair Daines and Gianforte formed a company called Genesis Partners to finance and build an office park for Gianforte’s startup, RightNow Technologies. RightNow sold cloud-based customer-service technology that enabled companies to consolidate services such as call centers. Daines soon signed on to be an executive at RightNow.
Back then, Daines expressed admiration for then-Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat. “He talked about Baucus a lot with great affection,” said Alan Rassaby, RightNow’s longtime general counsel, adding, “He was about collaboration and working across the aisle — and it’s a very different Steve Daines I see now.”
Oracle agreed to buy RightNow in 2011 for $1.5 billion. The following year, Daines ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and won. In 2014, Baucus resigned to become the U.S. ambassador to China, and Gov. Bullock appointed Democrat John Walsh to fill his seat. But Walsh dropped out of the election after it was revealed he’d plagiarized a term paper. Daines won. “Things have come easily to him,” said David Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University and a former campaign manager for Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming.
Gianforte has taken a steeper route to public office: He lost to Bullock in a 2016 run for governor, then won Montana’s congressional seat in a special election in 2017, after he body-slammed a reporter. This year, Gianforte is running to replace Bullock as governor, and is favored to win.
RightNow’s political legacy is complex: It contributed to a tech boom that has moved Gallatin County to the left, and it launched the public careers of two conservatives who could very well change the state’s politics. When I asked Parker about Daines’ and Gianforte’s political forebears, he wrote, “They don’t really have any.”
The uncomfortable truth about Montana’s political traditions is that they were built on a brutal century of white hegemony. But that is changing. Voter turnout in Indian Country has steadily increased thanks to groups like Western Native Voice, a Billings-based nonprofit. In 1999, there were two Native representatives in the state Legislature. Now, there are 11.
Marci McLean, Western Native Voice’s executive director, who is Piikuni (Blackfeet), says there are between 15,000 and 20,000 registered voters in Indian Country. The actual number is difficult to pin down: Estimates are generated within targeted precincts in reservation communities, some of which are demographically diverse, and many Indigenous people live in Montana’s cities. During the 2018 election, 60.3% of voters in targeted precincts turned out, helping swing the race in Tester’s favor. This year, McLean is aiming for 65%, a figure that could make the Native vote a deciding factor.
But registration efforts have slowed due to COVID-19. “It will make things harder,” McLean said, “and at the same time I feel it’s a challenge we can rise to meet.”
The Bullock campaign’s deputy political director is a respected Piikuni (Blackfeet) organizer named Cinda Burd-Ironmaker. Alissa Snow, Piikuni (Blackfeet) and Aanih (Gros Ventre), formerly of Western Native Voice, is working on voter turnout for the Democrats. Bullock has been endorsed by Montana Native Vote, a 501(c)(4) organization associated with Western Native Voice.
Daines has taken a different tack. He has been endorsed by Alvin Not Afraid Jr., chairman of the Crow Nation, which relies on coal. Last year, Daines and Tester introduced legislation pushing for federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Tester had been pushing unsuccessfully for such recognition since 2007, but once Daines got onboard in a Republican administration, the measure passed. According to Gray, Daines flew on Gianforte’s private aircraft to attend the ceremony celebrating the bill’s passage.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you give Tester a ride?’” Chairman Gray recalled with a chuckle.
Later, Daines asked for the Little Shell Tribe’s endorsement. His request went unfulfilled.
With his seat in peril, Daines has advanced meaningful legislation. Last December, he and Tester introduced a bill to ratify the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe-Montana Compact, which would quantify water rights on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The dispute dates back to the Hellgate Treaty of 1855; it has loomed over the tribal nation’s economic health and sovereignty as well as Montana’s agriculture for years.
Water compacts with sovereign Indigenous nations must be ratified by the tribe, the state and Congress; following ratification in the state Legislature, Tester introduced it in the Senate in 2016, but it did not pass. In December, it came up again — this time with Daines’ name leading the way. It has advanced through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “He’s doing what’s right there,” said Jason Small, a Republican state senator from Busby and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
But perhaps no victory was as significant as the passage this summer of the Great American Outdoors Act, which established permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF routes revenue from offshore oil and gas development to fund public-land infrastructure.
For decades, legislators from both parties have been pushing for permanent reauthorization of the LWCF. But in February, Daines and Cory Gardner, the embattled Republican senator from Colorado, met Trump alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They left with the president’s promise to sign a bill. In July, the Great American Outdoors Act passed Congress, with Trump signing it into law shortly afterward. Democrats have criticized Daines for claiming credit for years of work by bipartisan legislators. Still, Land Tawney, of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said, “He deserves credit.” Alan Front, a lobbyist who’s worked on the issue for years, said, “The results speak volumes.”
But Daines’ public-lands record is mixed. In 2015, he voted against reauthorization of the LWCF. That same year, Backcountry Hunters opposed an amendment to a budget resolution brought by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. The measure included a mechanism easing the path for the transfer of publicly owned, federally managed land to state control. According to advocates like Tawney, that could lead to the land’s sell-off. In his telling, Daines “shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I will never sell off public lands.’” But when it came time for the vote, Daines sided with the Republican majority. The measure passed 51-49.
Bullock beat Gianforte in 2016 partly on the strength of his stance on public lands; he’s banking that voters will remember Daines’ record. A few days after Bullock’s trip to Great Falls, he traveled to the unincorporated community of Wise River, south of Butte. Bullock had come to dedicate a new fishing access on the Big Hole River in honor of a fishing guide and public-lands advocate named Tony Schoonen who died last year. There were about 25 people in attendance, many clad in flannel and Gore-Tex.
Fast clouds cast shadows on the river. Bullock emerged from his Suburban with a face mask that read “I [heart symbol] PUBLIC LANDS.” When he spoke, his voice was soft, the pulpit growl gone. He reminisced about a nearby country bar: “Last time I was there, it was my nephew Josh’s bachelor party.” He talked about his time defending Montana’s law allowing public access to waterways, as well as the state’s “three great equalizers”: public education, public participation and public lands.
“We’re all rootin’ for ya,” said Schoonen’s son.
“Hopefully it works out,” said Bullock.
Near the end of September, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie came to Montana to accompany Daines to VA facilities in the state. A group of journalists gathered outside the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fort Harrison, near Helena. There was a dais in front of a path lined with American flags. Wilkie’s communications director issued one ground rule to the press: “No politics.”
The doors to the medical center opened, and out they strolled: Wilkie in a suit, his face stern, and Daines, tan and tall, with a jacket that sported an American flag pin. Wilkie spoke about the vast landscapes of the West, “the great distances we at VA have to travel in order to get services to those who have served.” Daines took his mask off slowly, then talked about the potential benefits of telehealth. He told a story about how the secretary had, just then, inside, gone out of his way to speak with workers in the canteen.
The next stop was Missoula, and a Veterans Affairs clinic in an office park. Wilkie’s communications director again said, “No politics.” The men walked to a dais. Daines said, “Technology is a great way for us to help our veterans, particularly in the area of mental health.”
The second debate of the campaign was held that evening at a PBS studio on the University of Montana’s campus. Members of the media were not permitted inside. Out front were two small groups, entirely separated, both nearly entirely white, each of them clustered there to support their respective Steve. Daines arrived in a black Suburban, Bullock in a white one.
A crowd of about 25 people on the east side of the lot chanted: “U-S-A!” They wore wide smiles; Daines had just passed by. One young man named Jim in a Trump hat and shirt practically glowed. He couldn’t believe how good it had been — “Just seeing Sen. Daines walk in there.” I asked what he liked about Daines. “Everything,” he said. “I like his ideas on foreign policy.” He paused and added, “He just wears a suit nice.”
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