BELGRADE, Mont. — The Big Sky Country got the vice presidential treatment on Monday as the White House threw its muscle behind Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesTrump courts Florida voters with moratorium on offshore drilling Democrats push White House to oust head of public lands bureau Hillicon Valley: Election officials prepare for new Russian interference battle | ‘Markeyverse’ of online fans helps take down a Kennedy | GOP senators unveil bill to update tech liability protections MORE (R) in a race that could decide control of the Senate in November.
Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence will not attend fundraiser next week hosted by couple who shared QAnon posts Biden, Pence cross paths at NYC 9/11 ceremony Biden on debates with Trump: ‘I know how to handle bullies’ MORE joined a state GOP rally here as the haze from west coast wildfires periodically obscured the mountain range in the distance.
Pence’s speech largely mirrored one he delivered earlier in the day in Wisconsin, though he spent a large chunk urging support for down-ballot candidates. He praised Daines’s record, urged voters to back him for a second term, and hailed him as a “man of faith” and a “fighter for everything that makes Montana great.”
“A vote for Steve BullockSteve BullockTrump’s fear and loathing of voting by mail in the age of COVID Trump campaign sues Montana governor over mail-in ballot directive Senate GOP campaign arm invokes law-and-order message in new ad MORE is a vote for the agenda of the radical left,” Pence warned.
Daines is running against two-term Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign in the Democratic primary. Bullock, a centrist Democrat who has been bolstered by a positive approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, joined the race in March after he initially resisted advances from Democratic leaders to challenge Daines.
“I am now [Senate Minority Leader] Schumer’s No. 1 target for defeat,” Daines said, arguing that the path to control of the upper chamber goes through Montana.
Hundreds of people packed tightly together for an outdoor rally at the Big Yellow Barn. Many wore red “Keep America Great” hats, but only a handful wore masks, and the coronavirus pandemic largely went unmentioned outside of Pence’s usual remarks defending the administration’s response.
But Montana’s electoral significance this year rests more with the Senate race than the presidential race. Daines largely focused his speech on painting Bullock as too liberal and tying him to nationally prominent members of the Democratic Party like Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden marks anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, knocks Trump and McConnell Sunday shows – Trump team defends coronavirus response GOP chair defends Trump messaging on masks: ‘To say that he should have known then what we know now isn’t really fair’ MORE (D-Calif.) and vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBlack church leaders demand apology for Trump campaign ad Immigrants rights group endorses Biden-Harris ticket Does Kamala Harris’s music matter? MORE (D-Calif.).
Republicans hold 53 Senate seats, but 22 of those senators are up for reelection, and incumbents in Arizona, North Carolina, Maine, Iowa and Colorado face stiff challenges.
Montana has something of an independent streak when it comes to state-wide races, and it finds itself at the center of discussion over which party will seize control of the Senate for a second straight cycle. Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThis World Suicide Prevention Day, let’s recommit to protecting the lives of our veterans Filibuster fight looms if Democrats retake Senate Overnight Energy: Green groups see legal flaws in Trump’s Arctic drilling plan | 14 states sue Trump administration over gas transportation rule | Conservation groups push lawmakers for Pendley’s removal MORE (D) won reelection by roughly 18,000 votes in 2018 in a state that Republicans targeted heavily and Trump visited multiple times.
The president has yet to visit Montana in 2020 as he focuses more on presidential battleground states. But Pence’s presence was a nod to the significance of Daines’s reelection in securing a GOP majority should the Trump administration win a second term.
“Some people think Montana is a purple state because we’ve shown we can elect Dems,” said Barrett Kaiser, a long-time Montana Democratic strategist who is not directly affiliated with the Bullock campaign.
“But that’s not right — we are a ruby-red state that tends to vote for the person you want to have a beer with,” he continued. “So if Trump is under-performing here, of all places, it could be a bellwether for the rest of the country, in particular those battleground states that are ‘rural.'”
Trump won Montana by 20 percentage points in 2016 and is expected to handily carry the state again in November, but the Senate race is shaping up to be much closer.
A poll conducted from Aug. 30-Sept. 5 by AARP-Montana showed Daines leading by 3 percentage points. The Cook Political Report rates the Montana Senate race as a toss-up.
“I’d say the race is knotted up with perhaps a slight advantage to Daines as he is the incumbent,” said David Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University.
But Parker added that it’s “absolutely possible” that Bullock could win the Senate race while Trump wins the state’s electoral votes, noting Montana’s history of electing Democrats to statewide office despite being solidly red for presidential elections.
Pence’s visit was initially overshadowed by a bit of controversy. The vice president was slated to attend a fundraiser hosted by a couple that had shared posts related to the QAnon conspiracy theory. The fundraiser was quietly scrapped, and Pence only addressed the state party before returning to Washington.
Montana has multiple state-wide races on the ballot in November. Gubernatorial candidate Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteOn The Trail: How Nancy Pelosi could improbably become president Supreme Court denies push to add Green Party candidates to Montana ballot House Democratic campaign leader predicts bigger majority MORE (R) and House candidate Matt Rosendale (R) also spoke at Monday’s rally.