Rating Change: Montana Senate Shifts Toward Democrats

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 9, 2020 · 9:40 AM EDT

It’s only been 16 months since Democrats won a Senate race in Montana, and less than six years since Big Sky Country sent two Democratic senators to Capitol Hill. Democrats are looking to recreate the magic again in November, now that they have Gov. Steve Bullock, their top recruit, in the race. 

Defeating GOP Sen. Steve Daines won’t be easy for the Democrats but, at a minimum, Bullock’s entry changes the math for control of the Senate and puts Republicans further on the defensive. Bullock’s decision expands the battleground of competitive Senate seats, decreases the percentage of competitive states Democrats need to win for control, and ensures Republicans will need to spend money in a state they previously wouldn’t have had to worry much about.  

Daines will start the high-profile race with an advantage, but Republicans shouldn’t get too overconfident.

GOP efforts to compare Bullock’s candidacy to unsuccessful Senate bids by former politicians don’t add up.

The first obvious difference is that this isn’t a comeback for Bullock. Former Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and former Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio had all been out of office for six years before they lost Senate races. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen had been out of office for eight years before losing a Tennessee Senate bid in 2018. Bullock is the incumbent governor of Montana, re-elected in 2016.

Republicans even compare Bullock to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is challenging GOP Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado, as if it were a slight. Similar to Bullock however, Hickenlooper has been out of office a little more than a year, and he has a legitimate chance of winning this November.  

Bullock’s current title gives him an advantage the other failed candidates didn’t have- an office to command attention without relying solely on media coverage of the campaign trail, and a way of demonstrating relevance rather than rehashing the past. Bullock can run as a political outsider against a Washington insider. 

It won’t be easy for Democrats either. Bullock has to run in a federal race, with a different set of issues, and control of the Senate on the line. Some Montanans who supported Bullock for governor a time or two, may not be as excited about making Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York the new majority leader. 

Bullock will also have to answer for some statements he made and stances he took during his brief presidential run. And he’ll have to do it in a state Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Bullock will presumably need to convince at least 50,000 people who voted to give the president a second term to also support a Senate candidate who was in favor of ending Trump’s presidency before his first term ended.

After the 2018 elections, Republicans had a 51.7-45.2 percent Baseline advantage over Democrats in competitive statewide and congressional races in Montana over the most recent four election cycles.

Of course this race is just getting started, and it will be more difficult than either Daines or Bullock has ever faced before. But it’s at least more competitive than it was for most of the cycle. 

We’re changing our rating of the Montana Senate race from Solid Republican to Lean Republican. 

We’ll have a full analysis of the contest in the upcoming, March 20 issue of Inside Elections.