National observers have formed a highly competitive image of the Montana Senate Race. However, there is growing evidence that incumbent Sen. Steve Daines (R) may have a clear advantage. The state’s demographic profile, paired with increases in national and state partisanship and increased national investment, could serve to weaken Democratic Governor Steve Bullock as he seeks to challenge incumbent Republican Steve Daines.
In the 2002 Montana Senate Election, incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Baucus won election by 31 points, winning all but two counties. 16 years later, his ideological heir Jon Tester won by just three points. This was even as Democrats picked up the House of Representatives in the biggest Democratic wave since 1974.
Obviously, this is an extreme comparison. It pits one of the biggest Democratic wins in 21st century Montana against one of the narrowest. But it is a fair one, and is indicative of the vast changes occurring in Montana politics. Even though Montana (which voted for George Bush by 20.5% in 2004, and for Donald Trump by the exact same margin in 2016) had a relatively similar partisan baseline in both elections, the rise of a more contentious national environment has made it more and more difficult for Democratic candidates to win the state.
A Reddening State
Furthermore, this has coincided with a reddening of the state as a whole versus during the Obama years. The state voted strongly for Bush in each of his campaigns, befitting for a non-coastal western state at the time. Yet Montana’s large blue collar population, including significant ex-industrial regions in the mining areas in the west of the state, led it to swing hard for Obama in 2008. In the end, however, this turned out to be a poisoned chalice for Democrats. Many of these same blue collar voters played a significant role in Montana’s landslide margin of victory for Donald Trump in 2016.
Combined with the demographic realities of Montana’s overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white population (89.4%), as well as the state’s significant rural population, this political background already presents an unfavorable landscape for Democrats. Still, these factors in and of themselves are not disqualifying. After all, Montana Democrats were able to pull off wins, even at the federal level, as recently as 2018. Even with that said however, these realities must still be incorporated into any discussion of Montana politics. The state’s status as being both right-trending and (already) deeply conservative puts it in a different category than just about any other when considering potential Democratic pickups in the 2020 elections.
The False Promise of the 2018 Senate Race
In the 2018 Montana Senate race, Tester eked out a 3.7% win. This reflects both the promise and peril of heavy Democratic investment in the state. Although Tester was able to pull out a win, and with it an easier Democratic path to control of the Senate, his win also displayed many of the same weaknesses that seem likely to challenge Bullock in 2020, such as a reliance on heightened Democratic turnout, and was also dependent on several factors and benefits that Bullock seems unlikely to possess, such as an incumbency advantage.
It is well-known that Democratic candidates managed to, on average, significantly out fundraise their Republican opponents in the 2018 midterms, especially in competitive seats. But in Montana, that was not just doubly so, but triply so. As a result of an early National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) pullback from the seat, Tester ended up outraising his opponent, Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale, by a whopping 4 to 1 ratio. This is particularly impactful in a state like Montana, where a smaller population results in cheaper advertising markets.
By contrast, increased NRCC investment this year seems likely to diminish that advantage. That shift will help to shape the race. As of July 20, OpenSecrets actually showed Daines leading in fundraising, with $12.9 million raised to $11.0 million for Bullock. While this reflects, to some extent, the smaller presence of red state battlegrounds in this year’s Senate elections (and thus the corresponding increase in Republican fundraising ability), it is also indicative of broader national Republican interest. Daines, the incumbent Senator, is able to pull in more funding than a less prominent State Auditor.
The presence of fewer other right-leaning battlegrounds will naturally lead to a bigger share of the pie for still competitive red states such as Montana. However, the amount of money invested into the race means major advantages for Sen. Daines, regardless of how the new money is raised.
In 2018, the FiveThirtyEight Montana Senate Forecast model estimated that Tester would win the Montana 2018 Senate election by five points. This was buoyed by an estimated 12% incumbency advantage due to Montana’s status as a smaller state, as well as Tester’s two terms in office. Obviously, Bullock will not ultimately lose by eight or nine points, as a simple 3.7-12 calculation would get into the area of. But Bullock will suffer, as challengers do, from the lack of incumbency advantage. Bullock will benefit from his prominent stature and service as Governor, which should help nullify his lack of an incumbency advantage. However, it is still induitable that Gov. Bullock will not have the same advantage on this front as Tester did in 2018.
Furthermore, Gov. Bullock will be facing a much tougher opponent than Sen. Tester did. In 2018, Tester had the advantage of going up against Rosendale. Tester and his allies sought to brand him as “Maryland Matt” by virtue of his only moving to Montana 18 years ago. His only previous legislative experience was a stint in the Montana Legislature, as well as two years as State Auditor. By contrast, Bullock will be running from the position of a challenger facing an incumbent. Specifically, against an incumbent who had a 47-31 positive approval rating in the latest Morning Consult quarterly polls. This is, in of itself, is not dispositive – Bullock is also popular with Montana voters in his own right. However, it is also a factor which ought to be considered in the context of the two races. It makes a Tester-style playbook more difficult for Bullock.
As has been written about elsewhere, heightened turnout was a major advantage for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. An energized Democratic base helped bring victories up and down the ballot.
While the 2020 national enviornment appears to be similarly Democratic leaning, turnout and voter geography discrepancies may harm Democrats in more Republican states such as Montana. In these states, greater untapped pools of Republican voters who did not vote in 2018 may exist. For instance, calculating race results with 2016 turnout levels by county and 2018 Senate electoral results by county would reduce Tester’s margin by 0.3%. This is without even considering differences within the counties.
When focusing on one side of the race, it’s often easy to present a one-sided electoral picture. While Montana’s 2020 Senate election may currently be overrated for competitiveness by national forecasters, that is not, on the other hand, to deny political reality. Montana is worthy of national investment and the race, especially in the current political environment, could very well go blue.
But national analysts are wrong to declare the Montana 2020 Senate race a tossup, or to put it before more tempting Democratic pickup opportunities, such as Georgia’s two senate seats up this year. While much of the sun belt, including states such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona (all of which have Senate elections this year) has been trending leftwards, states such as Montana have been trending rightwards. This makes them more politically unfavorable for Democratic candidates. Combined with Tester’s narrow 2018 win and increases in partisanship, and the race appears to be more and more of an uphill climb for Bullock.
Currently, The Cook Political Report, RealClearPolitics, Niskansen, Politico, and Inside Elections, all rate the race as a Tossup. Elections Daily only recently changed the race to Tossup. However, Montana’s heavily Republican partisanship, fundraising advantages for Sen. Daines, and incumbency challenges for Gov. Bullock, all would seem to indicate that Leans Republican is a more accurate rating.