MONTANA CITY — In a visit to the Ash Grove Cement plant here last week, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., barely mentioned his bid for the U.S. Senate — and never uttered the name of his opponent, Democrat Amanda Curtis.
“It doesn’t change what we’re doing,” he told reporters when asked about the race and his new opponent. “I’m getting up early every day, I’m going to bed late every night, continuing to talk about the need for more jobs in Montana and less government.”
Indeed, Daines — Montana’s 52-year-old, first-term congressman — hasn’t had to change much about his Senate campaign, solidifying his front-runner status as Democrats have imploded and rebooted.
Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont. — Daines’ main opponent until two weeks ago — withdrew from the race Aug. 7, two weeks after the New York Times reported that he had plagiarized his master’s degree paper at the U.S. Army War College in 2007.
Montana Democrats chose a replacement candidate at a party nominating convention Aug. 16, selecting Butte schoolteacher Amanda Curtis, a little-known state legislator. She’s had to begin her campaign at ground zero, 80 days before the election, hiring staff, raising money and making herself known to voters across Montana.
Daines, meanwhile, has simply ignored his opponents’ problems, traveling the state during Congress’ August recess, touring businesses, meeting with business groups and others, spreading his message about “government overreach” he said is hindering economic expansion.
When asked for specifics, Daines points to proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gases, that he said will harm Montana’s coal industry; the failure of the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline; and “Obamacare,” the federal health care overhaul of 2010.
“(Obamacare) is a tremendous growth in our government and government spending without reducing costs in health care,” he says.
He also touts his support of a balanced-budget amendment — but steadfastly resists lining out just which programs he’d cut to balance the budget. Instead, he said it’s time to “change the incentive structure in Washington, D.C.,” such as not paying Congress unless it submits a balanced budget, or pass lower spending limits and have federal agencies identify the cuts.
At the Ash Grove plant in Montana City, Daines found a mostly receptive audience among a dozen workers and managers, and said he’d be glad to help them forge a more cooperative relationship with Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors or work on other regulations that plant owners see as onerous or unnecessary.
“I don’t want to see anything that is detrimental to the land,” said plant maintenance worker Travis Smith of Montana City. “But we’ve got to have jobs. (Montana) can’t be just a playground for the rich and famous.”
“Everyone I talk to, like you all here in this room, you want to make sure that we protect the environment,” Daines said. “I think the extremes are driving this either-or choice.”
The previous week, Daines was in Helena, addressing a group of Montana car dealers, citing his own business background and the need for the private sector to thrive.
“How in the world could you run your business, year after year, with deficits?” he said. “Eventually your banker says, `That’s enough.’ And yet, Washington, D.C., keeps running deficits year after year after year. … We need to keep putting pressure on the government to operate more like we do in the private sector.”
At the end of his talk, the auto dealers gave Daines a $5,000 check from their political action committee. Again, Daines never mentioned his opponent.
David Parker, a Montana State political scientist, said there’s no reason for Daines to even acknowledge the opposition, given his considerable advantage in money, name recognition and the polls.
“I would be surprised if he actually debates (Curtis),” he said.
Curtis can try to run a grass-roots campaign against the better-funded Daines, but those take time to develop — and that’s a luxury Curtis doesn’t have, Parker said.
Daines entered August with $1.7 million in his campaign fund and he’s already spent more than $3 million, including nearly $2 million on campaign ad production and air time.
Some of Daines’ bigger monetary supporters have been natural resource industries — which comes as no surprise, since he almost always emphasizes his strong support for more development of oil, gas, coal, other mining and timber.
Natural resource jobs come with higher wages, Daines said, yet they’ve been hamstrung by current government policy or opposition from environmentalists allied with the Democratic Party or the president.
“From day one, I’ve been focused on fighting for more jobs, and not just jobs, but high-paying jobs,” Daines said. “We want to strike a balance. Nobody is opposed to regulation. What we’re opposed to is these overreaching regulations that the industry does not see a path to comply with right now. … It’s that balance that many Montanans want to see.”