HELENA — U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R- Mont., and Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., cruised to easy victories in their respective primary elections Tuesday, setting up a fall showdown between the two incumbents for a U.S. Senate seat held by Democrats for a century.
Daines, a heavy favorite in the three-way GOP primary, raced to an early lead and was winning 84 percent of the Republican vote, while Walsh turned aside his two Democratic primary challengers with 64 percent of the vote.
Daines made no secret of his strategy Tuesday night, saying he’ll keep pounding away on President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in the U.S. Senate as supporters of suffocating rules and regulations that are hurting jobs in resource-rich Montana.
“You can look no further than what we’ve seen in the last 48 hours from this president, in his latest round of regulations,” said Daines, referring to Monday’s proposals of new greenhouse gas restrictions. “These regulations could kill coal jobs here in Montana. …
“Montanans are telling me they do not want to see the overreach of President Obama and his policies that are backed by the (Democrat-controlled) U.S. Senate.”
Walsh, trying to win election to a seat to which he was appointed Feb. 7, said Tuesday night he’ll be telling Montana voters about Daines’ role in a “broken Washington, D.C.,” his votes to shut down the government last October and for budget plans that would privatize Medicare for the elderly.
“We are going to do everything we can so that Montanans know what type of congressman they have back here in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Daines, Walsh and Libertarian Roger Roots will compete this fall for the Montana U.S. Senate seat that Democrats have held since voters began electing U.S. senators directly in 1913.
The race is expected to play a key role in Republicans’ attempt to win control of the U.S. Senate.
With more than 70 percent of the votes counted, Daines led with 91,254 votes or 84 percent, against 9,635 or 9 percent for Susan Cundiff, a political newcomer and University of Montana administrative assistant, and 8,133 or 7 percent for state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula.
Walsh had 41,227 votes or 64 percent in the Democratic primary, while former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger had 14,509 votes or 23 percent and Dirk Adams, a rancher from Wilsall, had 8,447 votes or 13 percent.
Recent polls have shown Daines with a double-digit lead over Walsh, and the first-term congressman has raised about $4 million in campaign funds through mid-May. Walsh, a candidate since last October and a senator since February, had raised about $1.8 million during the same period.
Daines also got in a dig Tuesday night on Walsh’s appointment to the job: “This time the people of Montana will choose who gets to represent them in the U.S. Senate.”
Walsh, formerly Montana’s lieutenant governor, was appointed U.S. senator in February by his boss, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, after incumbent Democrat Max Baucus resigned after he was appointed by Obama as U.S. ambassador to China.
Daines said he’ll be talking about how Montana needs to develop its natural resources and accompanying high-paying jobs, as well as high-tech jobs like those developed by his former employer, RightNow Technologies of Bozeman.
Walsh said while Daines may emphasize oil, gas, coal and timber jobs, Montanans want a balanced approach that will preserve its environment and public lands, he said.
“I want to do everything that we possibly can to create jobs in Montana, but I also want to be sure that Montanans have an environment that is better than the environment that I grew up with,” said Walsh, who grew up in the shadow of the now-polluted Berkeley Pit in Butte. “That’s a big difference between Congressman Daines and myself.”
Walsh, 53, spent 24 years as a full-time employee of the Montana National Guard before he was appointed to its top post in 2008 by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. He retired from the Guard in 2012 when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock tapped him as his running mate for lieutenant governor.
The pair won a narrow victory that year, defeating the Republican gubernatorial team of Rick Hill and Jon Sonju, 49 percent to 47 percent.
Walsh grew up in Butte, attended Carroll College and led a combat battalion of the National Guard in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
Daines, 51, was an executive for RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman software development firm, before resigning in 2012 to run for Montana’s U.S. House seat, which he won by defeating Democrat Kim Gillan, 53 percent to 43 percent.
Daines had been preparing to run against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in 2012, but switched to the House race after then-U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a fellow Republican, decided to challenge Tester. Daines, who grew up in Bozeman and has an engineering degree from Montana State University, also ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2008, with gubernatorial running mate Roy Brown.
John Bohlinger, 78, a former Republican state lawmaker from Billings, ran for lieutenant governor in 2004 with Democrat Brian Schweitzer at the top of the ticket. The pair won election that year and in 2008, defeating Brown and Daines. Bohlinger ran a clothing store in Billings for 30 years.
Dirk Adams, 63, grew up in Texas but bought the beginnings of his ranch north of Wilsall in 1984, not long after he taught business law at the University of Montana. He slowly expanded the cattle, sheep and pig ranch while working as a bank regulator and savings-and-loan executive, mostly in California.
Champ Edmunds, 50, has been a state representative from Missoula since 2011 and was the first candidate to get into the race for the U.S. Senate seat. He grew up in South Carolina, spent 10 years in the Navy, and moved to Missoula about 15 years ago, where he attended the University of Montana and has worked as a mortgage banker.
Susan Cundiff, 36, works as department assistant at UM’s School of Business. She also is a sales associate for Victoria’s Secret in Missoula and sells skin and beauty products. Cundiff grew up in Virginia and moved to Montana in the mid-1990s.