By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines has been airing a television advertisement in Montana touting his efforts to protect his state’s residents from the novel coronavirus.
But his likely Democratic opponent, popular two-term Governor Steve Bullock, is dominating local news as the face of Montana’s fight to contain the outbreak, boosting his profile as his party fights to win control of the Senate in November.
That national battle is now a dead heat. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the 100-seat chamber, and most analysts remained convinced throughout 2019 that Republicans had a small but significant advantage in this year’s elections.
Democrats’ chances have improved thanks to high-profile recruits like Bullock, a rash of impressive fundraising, Joe Biden’s triumph in the party’s presidential nominating contest and a public health crisis that has decimated the U.S. economy once touted by Republican President Donald Trump, according to strategists from both parties and independent analysts.
As recent public polls have catalogued the public’s skepticism about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Democratic challengers in the four most competitive Senate races – Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina – far outraised Republican incumbents in the first three months of the year.
Montana and Iowa, another Republican-held state, are also in play. Democratic strategists said Trump’s vulnerabilities could help further expand the Senate map to seemingly inhospitable states like Kansas and Georgia, where bitter Republican nominating fights may produce weakened candidates.
Republicans are favored to oust Democratic Senator Doug Jones in conservative Alabama and are aiming for an upset in Michigan.
If Jones loses, Democrats would have to flip either four or five Republican-held seats to take over, depending on whether Biden wins the White House and thus control of the tie-breaking vote in case of a 50-50 split.
The centrist Biden’s win over liberal Senator Bernie Sanders in the nominating race mooted worries that a self-described democratic socialist at the top of the Democratic ticket would damage down-ballot candidates in swing states.
“It’s basically around 50-50,” Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia, said of the Senate odds. “For most of this cycle, I had things leaning to the Republicans. The playing field has gotten somewhat bigger, and the states we knew were going to be competitive have gotten a little better for Democrats over time.”
THE TRUMP FACTOR
A Republican official said internal poll data showed several vulnerable incumbents in better shape than public surveys have suggested, though he declined to share specific figures.
Party officials privately acknowledge the fundraising numbers are concerning. Money doesn’t automatically translate to votes but can signal voter enthusiasm and boost a candidate’s ability to compete.
Douglas Heye, a former top aide at the Republican National Committee, said Democratic chances of a takeover have increased but warned it was still much too early to make any predictions.
“The Vegas odds are better, but it takes a whole lot to translate that to what ultimately happens in November,” he said.
For Republican senators in swing states, the challenge is how to differentiate their work in Washington from Trump’s halting response without alienating a president who demands absolute fealty.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll found only 44% of Americans approve of Trump’s coronavirus effort, compared with 52% who disapproved – a 13-point drop in net approval from a month ago.
Thom Tillis, the senator from North Carolina, has focused on constituent services, holding two dozen virtual town halls on the outbreak. Susan Collins of Maine, whose votes to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and acquit Trump of impeachment have damaged her image as an independent, has created videos lauding her votes for coronavirus aid packages.
Arizona Senator Martha McSally, who is trailing in polls to Democrat Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and husband to gun control activist Gabby Giffords, also aired advertisements praising her Senate votes for relief bills.
Democratic operatives say they will work to contrast those efforts with the reality of Trump’s response.
In Maine, an advocacy group with ties to Senate Majority PAC, a leading Democratic super PAC, has already run a TV ad highlighting shortages of medical gear while quoting Collins saying Trump did “a lot that was right.” The group also began airing a coronavirus-focused ad in Arizona this week that faults McSally for her healthcare record, according to ad tracking company Advertising Analytics.
MONTANA IN PLAY
In the presidential race, Trump is expected to easily win Montana, where he won by 20 percentage points in 2016.
There has been no recent polling in the Senate contest, but both Democratic and Republican strategists agreed it should be competitive, largely on the strength of Bullock’s statewide brand.
Bullock captured a second gubernatorial term by four points in 2016 and has remained one of the country’s most popular governors, according to polls.
Like many governors who are getting much higher approval ratings on their response to the outbreak than Trump, Bullock also has seen extensive media coverage.
David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University, found Bullock and Daines were each mentioned close to 200 times in local news coverage in February. In March, as the outbreak intensified, Daines’ mentions remained flat, while Bullock’s quadrupled.
“He’s probably the most popular public official in the state, and that’s only gotten stronger,” Parker said.
Bullock, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, raised $3.3 million in the first quarter – more than twice Daines’ $1.3 million – despite only launching his Senate bid on March 5.
Republicans said they plan to highlight areas where Bullock moved left as he ran for president, including on guns, abortion, immigration and impeachment. They also warned that Bullock could still face trouble if the outbreak worsens later in the year.
“We’re not going to let Steve Bullock get away with treating Montana as a consolation prize after he spent the last year pandering to left-wing voters in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Republican-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC.
(This story was refiled to insert dropped word ‘has’ to first paragraph.)
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)