Montana skyrocketed to competitive status earlier this year when Democrats finally convinced term-limited Gov. Steve Bullock to jump into the race and challenge first-term GOP Sen. Steve Daines. That decision at the beginning of March came just before the COVID pandemic spread throughout the U.S., limiting the amount of campaigning either candidate could do.
But the past few months have also highlighted the unique nature of this race, as the only contest with a sitting governor seeking a Senate seat. And like other governors who have ably handled the pandemic — especially in comparison to the Trump administration's bungling — Bullock has seen his approval ratings rise exponentially too, up to 75 percent in one poll. Montana has had one of the lowest per capita infection rates (49th out of 50), with only 20 deaths as of June 17, and Bullock has gotten plaudits for closing the state early as it began to reopen last month.
So it's not surprising that Bullock seems to have benefited from his gubernatorial leadership during this crisis and being in the news daily. Recent private Democratic polling in the contest gives Bullock a small lead and finds that Bullock's approval ratings are more than 20 points higher than Daines, though the incumbent senator remains slightly above water. GOP polling also shows that it's a close race, but one where every internal poll for them has still shown Daines leading. Yet, even some Republicans privately admit this is likely to be a margin of error race to the finish line. Each party just believes it's their candidate who will eke out the victory.
Governors races and Senate races are fundamentally different of course, but this year could be one where having such executive experience and successfully managing such a daunting crisis could help Bullock overcome the heavy Republican tilt of the state at the presidential level. Trump won the state by just over 20 points four years ago. Still, if we look at where the president is polling against Joe Biden nationally (an average Biden lead of 8.5), that would indicate Trump is on pace to win the state by double digits, but somewhere perhaps in the mid or low teens instead.
Overcoming that margin is still tough in a presidential year — when Jon Tester won a second term in 2012 with President Obama atop the ballot, he outpaced him by almost 7 points. Obama lost Montana that year by nearly 14 points. But in 2008, Democratic Senate candidates in competitive races did outpace the top of the ticket by about 12.5 points. Also, Democrats argue that Biden isn't as toxic in the state as Hillary Clinton was four years ago, and note that Obama even came within 2 points of winning the state in 2008. But Republicans say their polling from last month still had Biden far underwater in the state. Plus, if Trump's numbers continue to sour nationally, there's a chance that Republicans can make the argument that there needs to be a GOP Senate still to serve as a check on a Biden administration.
But there's some evidence that maybe Bullock's performance with handling COVID-19 and generally good favorability in the state makes this a unique situation where traditional rules may not apply. Unlike other states with candidates newer to the statewide ballot, Bullock is already well-defined in voters' minds, and it may be harder to change voters' opinions of him. Bullock's fundraising has been impressive since he got in, too — he outraised Daines by about $2.1 million in the first fundraising quarter, despite being in the race for less than a month before the deadline. In the six week pre-primary filing period too ahead of the June 2 primary, Bullock again outpaced the incumbent by a nearly two-to-one margin and pulled within $1.6 million of Daines's cash of hand advantage.
Democrats need to pick up three seats with a Biden win, or four seats otherwise, to regain control of the Senate. The bad news is Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama is most likely going to lose his seat, meaning the Dems will have to pick up five seats.
The good news is that there are now five GOP toss-ups in play: Daines, Susan Collins in Maine, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Thom Tillis in NC and Martha McSally in Arizona.
Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is facing a challenge from Republican John James, who ran unsuccessfully against Tammy Duckworth in 2018 and is trying again now, Peters has a six-to-nine point lead or so but his seat is in play.
But on the other side of the coin, there are four more Republican seats in play like Peters's seat, including both Georgia senators (Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue), Joni Ernst in Iowa, and Kansas's open seat with Pat Roberts retiring after 24 years.
Yes, the most mathematically likely outcome is that as with 2018, the GOP picks up a senate seat with Jones losing and nearly all the incumbent Republicans hanging on. 90%+ of them get reelected and the Dems would be historically speaking lucky to break even by knocking off one of the five toss-ups, maybe two in the end for a total of +1 and a 52-48 GOP Senate in January. Hell, the GOP gained two seats in 2018 despite a massive House shift towards the Democrats.
But I don't think 2020 is going to be a typical year at all. Not by a long shot. I'd much rather be the Democrats in this situation with nine seats in play for the GOP than the GOP's likely one seat and one longer shot for a total of two Democrats even remotely in trouble.
A lot can happen in the next four-and-a-half months and will happen, believe me. But things are looking truly good for the Dems this time.