Back in December, Elections Daily‘s own Paul McCrary wrote about a potential run for Senate by Montana Governor and former presidential candidate Steve Bullock. The announcement is now official, so it’s worth revisiting the formidable hurdles Bullock faces in an attempt to unseat incumbent Republican Steve Daines.
Montana is a very red state
Democrats haven’t won a presidential race in Montana since 1992 and haven’t held either house in the legislature since 2010. Although Democrats held both Senate seats as recently as 2014, the state has shifted hard to the right since 2008; Obama lost it by only 2% in 2008, but it voted for Mitt Romney and Donald Trump by margins of 14% and 20%, respectively. Recent polling from the University of Montana shows Trump up by 22 points over both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Even more troubling for Democrats was 2018; despite the re-election of Jon Tester, they failed twice to unseat Representative Greg Gianforte, who literally assaulted a reporter during his campaign. In fact, Gianforte actually outran Tester, a populist who has won three Senate races by narrow margins. At the state and federal level, Montana is getting redder and redder, and that’s a big negative for Bullock right off the bat in this age of increased polarization.
Steve Daines is popular and inoffensive
According to the latest Morning Consult poll, Steve Daines has a positive approval rating, with 47% approving and 31% disapproving of his job performance. While Daines isn’t in leadership, his record is that of a very typical Republican, voting with Trump 85.5% of the time – about what you’d expect in a red state like Montana. In contrast to Gianforte, there’s nothing in Daines’s background to suggest he’s a liability, meaning Bullock will have a very hard time finding much to pick apart in Daines’s record.
Bullock is popular, but not overwhelmingly so
On paper, Bullock is actually more popular than Daines, sporting a 52% approval rating to only 31% disapproval in the latest Morning Consult poll. The problem is that his approval is only roughly in the same ballpark as Daines. Voters like both candidates about equally, and in a red state like Montana that’s not a good thing for Bullock. Additionally, Bullock only won the 2016 election with 50% of the vote, a good margin at the state level but not one that suggest credibility in a Senate campaign.
Bullock’s presidential campaign disaster
Bullock has generally governed as a moderate and he hoped this would position him well for a presidential campaign. Unfortunately, Bullock failed to catch on, never polled at higher than 1%, and left the race in December, well before the Iowa caucuses. This failed presidential campaign seemed doomed from the start, but some of the actions Bullock took during the campaign might come back to bite him.
As a presidential candidate, Bullock shifted from a candidate who to supporting a slew of new gun laws, including an assault weapons ban, something that even Tester does not support. Over half of Montanans own guns, and this change in positions won’t benefit him. Bullock’s use of official social media accounts to promote his candidacy has also been drawn into question as a potential ethics violation, and he now supports a $15 minimum wage. Put all of this together alongside the awkward position of running against Trump while the state likely backs him by 20 points and you have some very clear issues the Bullock camp is going to have to deal with.
Not much has actually changed in Montana
Based on the fundamentals and polling, Montana’s Senate race has gone from Safe Republican to, at worst, Likely Republican. Bullock has a massive uphill climb if he wants to unseat Daines, and the track record he’s going against isn’t great; there’s relatively little he can actually hit Daines on whereas Daines has a slew of new campaign ad material to work with. For now, the best Democrats can probably hope for is that Montana diverts some cash from states like Arizona, Colorado, Maine, or North Carolina, but the prospect of actually winning seems grim.