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Montana’s U.S. Senate race in 2020: Showdown or snoozer?

Posted: 6:56 PM, Mar 27, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-27 20:56:34-04

BILLINGS- With an open seat for governor and a first-term U.S. senator up for re-election, Montanans should brace themselves for a wild political year in 2020.

Not only is 2020 a presidential election year, but nearly all of Montana’s top political jobs are up for grabs.

Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, looks to be a shoo-in for another six-year term in the Senate, unless another candidate named Steve jumps into the race.

For now, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock remains focused on testing the political waters in Iowa’s presidential caucus, and insists a U.S. Senate seat does not interest him.

However, a Steve-vs.-Steve Senate race would give the Democrats a fighting chance at stealing Daines’ seat, according to analysts.

“Essentially you would have two incumbents running against each other,” said Billings-based Republican consultant Jake Eaton.

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Jake Eaton. MTN News photo.

Bullock “has said over and over that he doesn’t really want that job. I don’t know how you come back from that and convince people you do want it,” Eaton said.

Political Science Professor David Parker at Montana State University in Bozeman says Bullock’s decision is the $64 million question.

“I’ll take him at his word that he has no interest in it,” said Parker. “If you think of it in terms of his background, he has never served in a legislative capacity. He’s only served in executive positions.”

But without Bullock, Parker says Montana Democrats have a weak bench.

“There’s no really easy answer for the Democrats,” said Parker. “If Bullock stays out, this Senate race is probably the least interesting of the bunch.”

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Dr. David Parker. MTN News photo.

Eaton also doesn’t see Bullock jumping into the race, but says he’s not buying Bullock’s presidential bid.

“It’s hard for me to say with a straight face that Steve Bullock is actually a serious presidential candidate,” said Eaton. “But his camp has convinced themselves that he’s got a shot.”

So if it’s not Bullock, are there any Democratic hopefuls who might stand a chance challenging Daines?

In spite of losing to incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte in last fall’s U.S. House race, Democrat Kathleen Williams may have the brightest future.

“She’s going to be the most sought after Democrat candidate,” said Eaton.  “All the national groups, the governor groups will be wooing her, the Senate committees will be wooing here, the congressional committees will be wooing her.  She’ll be their go-to, marquee candidate this time around.”

And Eaton points out that the fact that Williams’ initial loss to Gianforte isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Montana voters tend to like people better the second time around,” explained Eaton.  “Very few folks at the statewide level ever win the first time out of the gates.”

Williams, though, is expected to announce soon that she’s planning another run at the U.S. House, leaving Democrats with few choices in the Senate race.

Democratic strategist Aaron Murphy, who just wrapped up a two-year stint as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s chief of staff,  isn’t convinced that’s a bad thing.

“I don’t think we should be in the habit of expecting folks in our party to rise through the ranks,” said Murphy.  “Anybody can do it.  Anybody with a passion and a willingness to stand up to the president or anyone in control, if they’re threatening our freedoms and everything Montana stands for.”

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Aaron Murphy. MTN News photo.

While a specific Democratic challenger to Daines has yet to surface, Murphy believes there will be plenty of issues to raise with the state’s junior senator.

“The question is, will he have the courage to actually speak with his constituents in a public forum, and actually take tough questions?” said Murphy.  “We haven’t seen that from Sen. Daines, and I think his time is due.”

Perhaps the most daunting issue facing any potential Senate candidate, is the task of running and financing a statewide campaign.

“You’re going to start a $20 million small business overnight, scale it up in a matter of months, and then shut it down,” said Eaton.  “That’s a pretty intense operation, to say the least.”