Montana Senate President Scott Sales was already worried that Gov. Steve Bullock would be a tough challenge to Sen. Steve Daines’ re-election chances.
Then the coronavirus shut down the country.
Now, after weeks of the Democratic governor being able to dominate media coverage as he leads the state through the pandemic and into a reopening process, it isn’t lost on Sales that Bullock is getting a “backdrop of credibility,” as he’s seen by the public with other officials.
And that could mean trouble for GOP hopes of keeping control of the U.S. Senate come November.
“I think the coronavirus thing has been advantageous to him from a political standpoint because he's been on TV every night talking about the coronavirus and actions that his administration are taking,” said Sales, a Republican also running to become Montana’s Secretary of State.
While some state leaders shepherding their states through the pandemic are running for re-election this year, Bullock is the only sitting governor trying to unseat an incumbent Senator in a key Democratic race. And as several governors face considerable backlash over their handling of their respective states at this stage of the pandemic, Bullock’s reopening approach has gone largely unnoticed nationally despite the implications for control of the U.S. Senate in a state President Donald Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016.
“That's going to be a dog fight and Steve Daines is in the fight of his life in my opinion,” said Sales, who supports Daines. “And I think Bullock is well positioned. He's going to be extremely competitive.”
State data shows Montana has reported 458 COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths, with new case numbers having dwindled to zero at points in the last week before a small increase was noted.
Under Bullock’s approach, bars and restaurants were among the places allowed to welcome the public back last Monday, dependent on certain conditions being met. Late last month, “main street and retail businesses,” were allowed to reopen with similar measures.
Further guidance released by the state Thursday detailed that attractions like gyms and movie theaters can reopen with restrictions as soon as May 15.
Any reopening during the pandemic comes with risks however as the coronavirus continues to still take a deep toll nationally.
House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, who’s running to become the state’s next lieutenant governor and sharing a ticket with Bullock’s current LG Mike Cooney, said he couldn’t say whether Bullock’s tenure during the pandemic has helped or hurt his Senate chances.
But he deemed the situation in Montana successful compared to other states.
“I would be surprised if that goes unnoticed by the people of Montana,” Schreiner said. “Whether that actually helps in the election or not, I'm not sure. But I definitely think it would be weird for people to not take notice of the leadership that he's exemplified during this time.”
Bullock still faces a difficult task in defeating Daines in November, and his waning days as governor during the pandemic comes with both risks and potential rewards when it comes to the Senate race.
Bullock, like his fellow top Senate recruit, former governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, dismissed running for the Senate repeatedly during their respective failed 2020 presidential runs. And for Bullock, his Iowa-centered campaign barely registered, with him only making the debate stage once as Democrats with experience serving as governor found themselves failing to make much of a splash in the presidential race.
But after announcing a Senate run on March 9 amid clear Democratic pressure just days before the pandemic began to shut down the country, Bullock’s role as governor may be his best asset come November.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, described the race as “very close,” and noted that governors during the pandemic have benefited from a type of “rally around the flag bonus.”
“I think Montana has turned into a bona fide Democratic target, even though I think I'd still rather be Daines there than Bullock ultimately,” Kondik said.
An email seeking comment from Daines’ campaign for this story was not returned.
Bullock has also had to face the antipathy for restrictions that have bubbled up in other states, both blue and red. And some in-state critics, like House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, point to his pandemic approach as further exacerbating their issues with the governor.
Tschida said in his experience with the governor he's “found him to be very disconnected.” He also attacked Bullock's reopening plan as not being “very well thought out.”
“He's not been connected to what's been going on because he has not sought input from anyone other than the echo chamber of advisors that he has typically serving his purposes,” Tschida said
Bullock’s office responded by saying he “is listening to advisors that believe in data and science.”
“Governor Bullock isn’t thinking about November; he is focused on doing what is best for Montana,” Marissa Perry, the governor’s communications director, said in an email.
In a part of the state hit hard by the virus, one official shared little love for the governor. Six of the state's 16 reported COVID-19 deaths came from the city of Shelby, according to officials. In an interview, Shelby’s mayor vented frustration about uncertainty over what criteria Bullock is using to move the state into different reopening phases.
“From my standpoint, I don't feel like he's given good leadership,” said Mayor Gary McDermott, who plans to vote for Daines.
In other Montana cities, Bullock was given kudos by officials for how he’s handled life during the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean those same officials are willing to say how they plan to vote in the expected Daines and Bullock matchup.
Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison said Bullock has appealed to both sides in his reopening plan, but he shied away from taking a side in November.
“I don't think he's been too radical one way or the other,” Jimison said of Bullock’s handling of the coronavirus. “And that fits my politics perfectly.”