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2020 Candidate Profile: Steve Daines For U.S. Senate

U.S. Senator Steve Daines is running for re-election to the U.S. Senate
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U.S. Senator Steve Daines is running for re-election to the U.S. Senate

This week we’re running profiles on both the Democratic and Republican candidates in the race. YPR News’ Kevin Trevellyan brings us this look at Steve Daines and his bid for reelection.

“How many of you are voting for President Trump?” an emcee calls out to enthusiastic cheers.

There’s no shortage of support for President Donald Trump during a recent GOP rally held outside Bozeman and headlined by Vice President Mike Pence. As incumbent Sen. Steve Daines finds out, the audience’s enthusiasm also extends to candidates down the ballot.

“How many of you will vote for Steve Daines?" the emcee asks. The crowd claps and chants, "Six more years chants.”

Rally attendee Kip Penniman plans to support the whole Republican ticket this year, including Daines. The Bozeman resident says he moved north from California to escape what he perceives as liberal infringement on his rights.

“We’re here because we’re tired of all the stuff going on," Penniman says.

Daines has branded himself a strong supporter of the president’s agenda since Trump took office. And like the president, Daines often points to his work in private business during his campaigns for public office.

“If you sum up what I have talked about for many years, it's probably four words. More jobs and less government," Daines said during a recent interview.

After growing up in Bozeman, Daines spent 13 years in management for Procter & Gamble, including six marketing products in Hong Kong and China. He later worked as an executive for RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman software company founded by U.S. Congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte. A larger tech firm eventually purchased the company for nearly $2 billion.

Daines first ran for public office in 2008 in an unsuccessful bid to become lieutenant governor.

University of Montana political scientist Christopher Muste says Daines made his first fruitful foray into politics, a 2012 run for the U.S. House, in the mold of Montana Republicans like former Gov. Marc Racicot and former Secretary of State Bob Brown.

“Somewhat more conservative but still reaching across the aisle. Not being as socially conservative as the more socially conservative wing of the Republican Party here in Montana," Muste says.

Daines comfortably won his Senate seat in 2014 against Democratic former state lawmaker Amanda Curtis, who got the post-primary nomination after incumbent Sen. John Walsh was embroiled in a plagiarism scandal.

Two years later in 2016, Daines hadn’t yet come around on Trump’s run for the White House, telling the Billings Gazette that he wasn’t his first or even second choice for president.

While Marc Racicot and Bob Brown have both stayed moderate, announcing this year they won’t support Trump’s reelection, Muste says Daines has since shifted to the right. He says the senator’s embrace of Trump embodies a larger trend among Montana Republican leaders over the last several years.

The political scientist says it’s unclear if that strategy will work in 2020. An Oct. 14 Montana State University poll found Trump ahead of Biden by seven percentage points in Montana, far less than Trump’s 20 point win over Hilary Clinton in 2016.

“I think there are some fault lines in there and Daines has a little more of a tricky path to walk not alienating people who consider themselves conservative, but not extremely conservative," Muste says.

Muste says issues like forest management reform represent the senator trying to appeal to moderate voters.

Daines is a cosponsor of the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020, introduced by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Daines says it’s an example of his “more jobs, less government” approach.

He says the bill will increase timber jobs by ramping up fuels reduction near roads and power transmission lines. The bill does this by exempting forest projects from a full environmental review. The senator also says it prevents what he calls frivolous lawsuits to halt U.S. Forest Service timber projects.

“Either we're going to manage our forests or our forests are going to manage us," Daines says.

After failing to get several forest management provisions into a 2018 spending bill, Daines thinks having a Democratic sponsor in Feinstein will help the legislation’s chances.

“The heavy lifting in Congress is finding bipartisan solutions. If you want to have a rally or a press release, you can go off on your own and say something or introduce a bill on your own. But if you want to get an outcome, you have to find a way to do it in a bipartisan fashion," Daines says.

Daines has also waded into fierce partisan battles in D.C. as a champion for Trump’s agenda. He was vocally against the impeachment of Trump, supported extending the southern border wall and was quick to back the president’s U.S. Supreme Court picks.

Daines also supports repealing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which has been a campaign promise of Trump. According to a poll by Kaiser Family Foundation, the national health care law has become more popular in recent years, although Republicans across the country still favor overturning it. Daines says he wants to keep protections for people with pre-existing conditions through a GOP proposal called the Protect Act.

University of Montana health care economist Bryce Ward says that claim doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Unlike the ACA, Ward says the Protect Act allows insurers to exclude coverage for essential benefits, charge older people far more for insurance and impose annual limits on how much they pay out.

“It’s all dessert, no vegetables," Ward says. “If your definition of protect includes ‘Make sure that you’re allowed to get a comprehensive insurance plan at a price that is somewhat similar to what exists under the Affordable Care Act,’ then no, Steve Daines is not ‘protecting pre-existing conditions.’”

Though he’s in line with the Trump administration on many issues, including health care policy, Daines says he challenges the president when it’s in Montanans’ best interests.

Daines joined the rest of Montana’s congressional delegation in pushing back against recent U.S. Postal Service changes, and he successfully urged the Trump administration to send more 2020 Census counters to Montana as the state lagged behind the national response rate with just weeks left to count.

Daines also says he helped get the U.S. Department of Labor to overturn a decision to close the Anaconda Job Corps training center last year.

“I said ‘Mr. President, you’re not getting good information. And I know there’s been a recommendation here for these closures. We need to keep these open.’ I explained this to him the good metrics we were seeing from the Montana centers," Daines says.

Trump says Daines has his ear. The president recently held a telerally in support of Republican U.S. House candidate Matt Rosendale and Daines.

“When he calls I take his call and do what he says because it’s always good and the right thing to do.”

Trump says Daines was the driving force behind the Great American Outdoors Act, which permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund and devoted billions to national park maintenance.

“This was Steve’s baby," Trump said.

The act was also cosponsored by another Western U.S. Senator facing a competitive reelection race this year, Republican Corey Gardner of Colorado. Daines says the bill was an example of divided lawmakers coming together.

“I'll look back on that as being one of the most satisfying and important wins and outcomes for Montana and for our country, probably in my career in the Senate," Daines says.

Daines voted against reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund when it came up as an amendment to a Keystone XL pipeline bill in 2015, saying at the time that he supported the program but wanted to see more transparency and a larger role for states. His support for the fund this year drew tempered praise from conservation groups that criticize Daines on other land management issues, like a 2017 bill to release five wilderness study areas, nearly 500,000 acres in Montana.

As for a second Senate term if he’s reelected, Daines says the novel coronavirus pandemic is the most pressing issue facing the country.

On the campaign trail, he’s repeatedly touted his role passing aid packages in Congress securing $10 billion in federal funding for COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research.

“I remain cautiously optimistic we're going to see breakthroughs in these therapeutic drugs and a vaccine over the course of the next several months, which I believe will eventually put an end to the pandemic," Daines says.

Current Gov. Steve Bullock, the Democratic challenger, has repeatedly slammed Daines and the Senate at large for not passing additional coronavirus relief. Though he supports passing more aid, Daines has said he opposes Democratic efforts to provide more money directly to states.

The contest between Daines and Bullock has drawn record breaking financial support, with Daines’ $24.5 million trailing Bullock’s $38 million. Advertising Analytics rates it the fifth most expensive Senate race of all time nationally.

Trump hasn’t been the only national Republican figure trying to rally votes for Daines in a race the Cook Political Report calls a toss-up.

Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stumped for Daines and other GOP candidates in the home stretch of this election season.

In the crowd was Ken Johnson. The Conrad farmer says he’s exhausted by Congress’ polarization and appreciates Daines’ ability to seek compromise.

“Most of us live in the middle. We tend to be one way or another a little bit, but we’re not completely radical, the vast majority of us," Johnson says.

Johnson feels that farmers have Daines’ ear in Washington D.C. He says the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement Daines voted for this year opened the door to sell more grain to Canada.

Johnson worries Democrats will gain more influence in the federal government. Haley echoes that point during her speech, framing Daine’s reelection as key to protecting America as we know it.

“This is about what life will look like the day after the election," Haley said.

As Republicans and Democrats wrestle for control of the Senate, the race between Daines and Bullock could play a key role in determining the future political power in Congress.

Election Day is Nov. 3.

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