HELENA — Montana voters were deciding Tuesday whether to nominate U.S. Sen John Walsh for the seat Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him to, and whether the Democratic nominee will face a formidable opponent in Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines.
The polls opened at 7 a.m. in most precincts across the state and things were going smoothly, said Terry McCoy, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
Walsh and Daines' campaigns have been sniping at each other for weeks with dueling media releases in anticipation of November's general election, which will be one of the nation's most closely watched for its potential to help shape the balance of power in the Senate.
But for that matchup to happen, Daines and Walsh must escape the underdog bids of their primary opponents. Walsh, aided by his 4-month-old incumbency and a flush campaign account, has outraised and outspent former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams.
Walsh said he's not looking past the primary, but that Daines should be called out for his vote to shut down the government last year.
"I take every election very seriously," Walsh said. "What's really important is we Montanans have to keep Congressman Steve Daines accountable for his actions."
Daines, who is in his first term, originally voted against raising the debt ceiling last year, which led to a partial government shutdown. He later voted to end the shutdown with some other Republicans and all the Democrats in the House.
Daines has eclipsed all Senate candidates in fundraising at more than $2.2 million, which is more than 54 times what state Rep. Champ Edmunds has raised. The third Republican candidate, political newcomer Susan Cundiff of Missoula, has not reported any money raised.
After the campaigns reached their peak last week with stops across the state, the candidates settled in to await the results. Daines was headed home to Bozeman to be with his family.
"The consistent theme that I heard all over the state, whether in eastern Montana or western Montana, is the intrusive overreach of the federal government into our lives in Montana," Daines said.
Walsh expected to watch the returns from his office in Washington, where the Senate was in session. He said the concerns he heard while campaigning included helping small businesses, making higher education affordable and health care for veterans.
The Senate race is at the top of the ticket, but Montana voters on Tuesday also will select party nominees for the U.S. House seat that Daines is vacating, along with 125 state legislative seats. There also are 11 judicial races and two Public Service Commission positions at stake.
But the biggest name in Tuesday's elections might not even be on the ballot.
Max Baucus was to retire after 36 years in the U.S. Senate when his term expired in January 2015, but he resigned in February to become ambassador to China. That paved the way for Bullock to appoint Walsh, who was his lieutenant governor at the time.
Republicans cried foul, saying Baucus' resignation and Walsh's appointment were orchestrated to give the Democrats an advantage against Daines and undermined the primary elections.
Bullock has repeatedly said the decision to appoint Walsh was his alone, and he believed Walsh to be the best person for the appointment.
Daines repeatedly has invoked Baucus' name on the campaign trail. He told participants of the American Legion Auxiliary Girls State gathering Monday he first heard Baucus speak when he was a delegate at the boys' gathering when Daines was in high school.
Daines also has cited legislation that Baucus introduced and Daines sponsored in the House to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River from development as continuing Baucus' legacy.
Baucus also looms over the U.S. House race, where his longtime aide, John Lewis, is one of two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Lewis has raised more than $755,000 in his first run for political office as the Democrats seek to take back a congressional seat they haven't held since U.S. Rep. Pat Williams left in 1997.
Lewis faces former Montana House Speaker John Driscoll, who hasn't taken any campaign contributions. Driscoll said he will take contributions for the general election if he wins the primary.
The winner faces the Republican nominee in a close five-way primary. The GOP candidates are state Sen. Elsie Arntzen, state Sen. Matt Rosendale, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, Helena businessman Drew Turiano and former state Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish.
Rosendale said he expected a "very tight race," and predicted most of the votes would be split between himself, Zinke and Stapleton.
Associated Press writer Lisa Baumann contributed to this report.