2020 Senate Races: Montana


I must admit to being a big fan of Sabato’s Crystal Ball from the UVA Center for Politics, and I was especially keen on the recent (Aug 5) 2020 Senate race rating (see map below).

Map UVA Sabato’s Crystal Ball

As a long-time observer of electoral geography, I must say the Crystal Ball is being a tad conservative on Montana—by which I mean that this is a winnable seat for Democrats and should be AT LEAST in the Toss-up category. I believe the Crystal Ball will move this to Toss-up by September. Why? This will be a Toss-up and likely a gain for Democrats due to the candidates, Montana’s electoral trends, as well as U.S. trends.

The Candidates

Steve Daines, a Republican, is the incumbent. Often incumbents in the U.S. Senate are hard to beat, but senators in their first term tend to be more vulnerable. A few reasons why this seat will likely go to the Democratic candidate: Steve Bullock.

Steve Daines (R) and Steve Bullock (D)

Why Senator Steve Daines will likely lose:

  • Daines was first elected in Nov 2014, facing a weak Democratic candidate. Democrat Amanda Curtis was handicapped by having  only 2 months to campaign and fundraise.
  • Daines raised $7.5 million for his race in 2014; Curtis raised $977,000.
  • In 2018, Montana reelected Democrat Senator Jon Tester, despite President Trump campaigning against Tester, confirming that Democrats can win here in the Trump era.
  • Also in 2018, Montana’s own #PlaidShirtGuy, Tyler Linfesty, shows some Big Sky skepticism to Trumpian rhetoric.


Why Governor Steve Bullock will likely win:

  • Bullock has won three statewide elections—once for Attorney General (2008) and twice for Governor (2012 and 2016).
  • Bullock won in 2016 despite his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, putting in $5.8 million of his own money in the race—in a year when Trump won Montana by 20 points.
  • Since declaring in March, Bullock has raised some $11 million, coming close to Daines war chest of $12.9 million that he has been accumulating for six years.
  • Bullock enjoys a high 75% approval rating as Montana governor.


Pundits characterize Montana as a red state, but recent statewide elections give it a more purple tint—plus the national trend indicates an exceptional voting pattern rather than a normal one. This exceptional pattern favors Democrats—as in 2008 at the twilight of the last Republican administration, when tax cuts for the rich, a ruinous recession, and health care loss enraged voters.

It looks like Steve Bullock will win the November election and go from the Governor’s residence in Helena, Montana, to the U.S. Senate in Washington, DC. It is also possible that Republicans will lose Montana’s electoral votes in November.

The Midwest: Key to Senate Control in 2014

Many people focus on the South when talking about Senate control in the November 4, 2014 elections. Republican campaigns and PACs have spent tens of millions of dollars on Senate races in the South: Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina. However, it is the Midwest region that may be key to the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, with 5 key elections in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, and South Dakota (shown in brown and green on the map below).



Republican Senate Plans & Assumptions

First, let’s take a quick look at Republican strategy for Senate control in 2014, which has largely been parroted by the media and pundits, such as The Washington Post and Virginia’s vintage political prognosticator Larry Sabato. According to their plans, the GOP could take Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, and West Virginia, while holding all their existing seats for a gain of 8 seats.

The 8-seat gain is based on pretty simple math. Of course, Senate elections are far more complex. As of early October, North Carolina looks like a lost cause for Republicans, South Dakota has a vulnerable Republican candidate, and Republicans incumbents could lose in Kansas and Kentucky. Suddenly, Republicans could gain just 6 Democratic seats and maybe lose 2 seats for a net gain of only 4 seats (Republicans need 6 seats to take control of the Senate).

At times, Republicans even arrogantly claimed that Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Virginia would fall to them, but Democratic candidates in these states are considered reasonably safe as of early October. The Republican brand has seen growing difficulty in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions (other than West Virginia).

Republicans are also assuming lower voter turnout for an off-year election. Some 130 million voters cast their ballots in 2008 and 2012, but only about 90 million voted in 2010. Republicans gained 6 Senate seats in 2010, but lost 8 seats in 2008 and 2 seats in 2012. It is generally considered that lower voter turnout favors Republicans, and that is why Republican-controlled states have passed voter-ID laws, which often discourage minorities and college students from voting.

Finally, Republicans hold the advantage in that they are defending only 15 Senate seats compared to 21 for Democrats. However, Republicans are expected to defend 24 seats in 2016, versus only 10 for Democrats. In other words, Republicans will have little hope of taking the Senate in 2016, if they fall short in 2014.

The Midwest Upsets Republican Plans: Starting in Kansas

The three-way race for Kansas’s Senate seat felt a geopolitical quake in early September, when Democratic candidate Chad Taylor dropped out of the race, leaving incumbent Senator Pat Roberts (R) facing Independent candidate Greg Orman. Non-partisan polls indicate that Republicans will likely lose this seat. Orman intends to caucus with the majority party, but Republican attack ads may spoil any future relationship.

The map (above) show a series of toss-up Midwestern states (brown) swirling around Kansas:

South Dakota. Republicans took neighboring North Dakota for granted in 2012 and lost the Senate seat to Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Currently, there is a three-way race to succeed Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, who is retiring. Mike Rounds, the Republican, leads with only 35% of the vote, while Democrat Rick Weiland and Independent candidate Larry Pressler continue to gain. Like Pat Roberts in Kansas, polls show Mike Rounds to be unpopular, and this race could become quite close. Should Pressler win, along with Orman in Kansas, the number of Independents in the Senate would double to 4 — a storybook outcome at a time when voters are unhappy with both political parties.

Iowa. U.S. Representative Bruce Braley (D) is running against state Senator Joni Ernst (R) to succeed retiring Senator Tom Harkin (D). Braley’s base in northeast Iowa exhibits urban and rural constituencies; Ernst is from rural, conservative southwestern Iowa. Des Moines, in Polk County at the center of the state, is the electoral prize for both candidates. Geographically, eastern Iowa will favor Braley and western Iowa will go for Ernst. This will likely be a nail-biter election, but I give a slight edge to Braley.

Kentucky. Polls show that incumbent Republican Senator Mitch McConnell is struggling in his race against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell is unpopular in polls, and tea party support is gone or unenthusiastic. Mitch McConnell has a host of geopolitical vulnerabilities, which I covered in June. Kentucky is usually one of the first states to report election results, but November 4 could be a long night.

Colorado. Senator Mark Udall is purportedly on the ropes, according to conservative commentators, but the state that legalized recreational marijuana last year is not likely to go conservative in a statewide election. Udall should pull in enough votes from Denver, Boulder, and central Colorado to win. Republican Cory Gardner, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011, will sweep his rural district in eastern Colorado and will do well in the far western counties, but this will likely not be enough to win the election.

The Independent Midwest and Senate Control 

If Republicans win in all 4 of the toss-up Midwest elections (in brown on the map), then they will gain 7 seats; however, if the GOP loses all four then they will only gain 3 seats. Assuming that Republicans win in other regions of the country and that Kansas goes to Independent candidate Greg Orman, Republicans need to take 3 of the 4 Midwestern Senate seats to win the Senate (a tall order). Also, there will be Senate uncertainty, pending any general runoff election in Louisiana (December 6, 2014) and Georgia (January 6, 2015).

In the end, it appears that Republicans will not take the Senate outright and that control of the Senate may not be determined until 2015, depending on runoff elections and negotiations with Independents in the Senate.

The 2014 Kentucky Senate Race: Irony & Political Theater

Political candidates are often compared to actors trying to win over an audience while on stage, using scripts written by others . As in any drama, elections can have surprise endings. On June 10, House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his primary election in one of the biggest political upsets ever. Was this a freak electoral storm, or should other Republican leaders worry, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell?

The political stage loves irony, or at least finds it entertaining, and the Senate race in Kentucky could be truly ironic if:

  • Mitch McConnell is defeated, and his loss means that Republicans fail to take control of the Senate.
  • Republicans take control of the Senate, but McConnell is defeated in his reelection effort, and he never becomes Senate Majority Leader.
  • Former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.), who oversaw Republicans’ failure to take back the Senate in 2010 and 2012, becomes Senate Majority Leader in 2014 after McConnell’s election loss.
  • Republican Senate Minority leader McConnell loses his election on the 10th anniversary of Democratic Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle losing his seat in a historic political upset.
Screen shot 2014-06-08 at 1.57.20 PM
Political Theater: Comedy, Tragedy, and Irony in McConnell-Grimes Race

The stage is truly set for an ironic ending, but can McConnell really be defeated? University of Virginia’s political prognosticator, Larry Sabato, could answer such a question. According to Sabato’s Crystal Ball website on June 4, it appears that McConnell will easily win reelection and Republicans will take 4 to 8 seats in the November elections.

Could Sabato Be Wrong? A good geopolitical analyst looks at more than just one source, so I reviewed some current polls, headlines, and election trends.How is Mitch McConnell doing in the polls? Polls at Real Clear Politics look pretty bad for an incumbent. His campaign suffered negative publicity after a tape emerged in April 2013 of plans to attack Ashley Judd’s mental health. He averages only 45% of the vote in polls ending June 5, 2014. The Democratic candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, is running very close to McConnell in most polls, and a Courier-Journal poll actually shows Grimes edging ahead.

Healthcare Debate. McConnell hates Obamacare (a Republican mantra), but Kentuckians seem to like their state healthcare exchange, Kynect. Confusingly, McConnell says that repealing Obamacare would have no impact on Kynect; this brought doublespeak charges from the Lexington Herald-Leader and criticism from Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear. McConnell could become more unpopular as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) becomes more popular.

Kentucky Elections. Kentucky has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and in 2011 Kentuckians elected six Democrats and one Republican to statewide offices, ranging from Governor to State Treasurer. Alison Lundergan Grimes garnered 60.6% of the vote to become Secretary of State in 2011 (see map below). Mitch McConnell won his Senate reelection in 2008 with 53% of the vote.


Geopolitically, Democrats tend to do best in the urban areas of Louisville, Lexington, and Owensboro and in eastern Kentucky. Republicans get most of their votes in central and southern Kentucky. Grimes won her 2011 election by holding Democratic counties and gaining votes in normally Republican regions.

McConnell’s 2008 election (map below) shows Kentucky as a purple state. Many counties show as varying shades of purple–neither firmly Republican nor Democrat. Individual campaigns and debates make a big difference in such areas.

McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford with 53% of the vote in 2008. Many of the swing counties (purple) went for Grimes in 2011.
McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford with 53% of the vote in 2008. Many of the swing counties (purple) went for Grimes in 2011.


2012 Senate Elections. Finally, let’s consider that Republicans forecast they would take the Senate in 2012. How did that work out? Well, Republicans won only 8 of 33 Senate races, with Republicans barely winning in Arizona and Nevada. Republicans ended up losing 3 seats in 2012—in Indiana, Maine, and Massachusetts. The Republican brand looks vulnerable in statewide races.

Toss-up Election? This looks more and more like a toss-up election. Now, I am the first to admit that I am no Larry Sabato (twitter: @larrysabato), nor even Ben Tribbett (twitter: @notlarrysabato). Both are Virginia political institutions. However, I question Sabato judging the Kentucky Senate race as “Likely R” (likely Republican). It seems like a “Toss-up,” or maybe a “Lean R” at this point.