HELENA — Bozeman business executive and Republican Steve Daines, seeking to avoid a divisive U.S. Senate primary against U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg next year, left that race Thursday and said he'll run instead for the House being vacated by Rehberg in 2012.
Daines' decision clears the way for an uncontested primary for Rehberg, a six-term congressman, in the 2012 Senate race for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Republican sources have said Rehberg plans to announce Saturday night his bid against Tester, who has said already that he's running for a second term.
"By me running for the House seat, it avoids a divisive (Senate) primary which could harm our chances," Daines said in a telephone interview. "It would have put Montana's lone congressional seat at risk. It would not have been in the best interest of Montana."
Daines, 48, becomes the second person to announce a bid for Rehberg's soon-to-be open House seat. On Tuesday, state Rep. Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman, announced that she'll run for Rehberg's seat.
Daines, a vice president of RightNow Technologies, a high-tech firm that employs more than 1,000 people, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2008, on the Republican ticket headed by Roy Brown. Brown and Daines lost to Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger by a 2-to-1 margin.
Daines said he isn't disappointed to run instead for the House.
"These seats are not owned by politicians," he said. "They really are seats that belong to the people. I think an entitlement type of thinking of politicians is part of our problem."
Reiterating what he said in his candidacy announcement last fall, Daines said his goal was to help "common-sense conservatives capture all three (of Montana's) federal seats by 2014."
He was referring to the two Senate seats and Montana's lone congressional seat.
Daines said Rehberg told him privately within the last month that he was considering running for the U.S. Senate.
"We had to make a decision," Daines said. "Is it the right thing to have a divisive primary or get behind Denny and what he wants to do in the U.S. Senate?"
Daines said he and Rehberg are on the same page philosophically on the need to reduce government spending and "to eliminate Obamacare."
As a candidate for federal office, Daines will be able to transfer his Senate campaign's $206,000 cash balance into his new House campaign. Daines had raised about $225,000 in six weeks for his Senate campaign. The Bozeman Republican noted he raised nearly $100,000 more in six weeks than Tester garnered in three months.
Daines said he and his wife, Cindy, already have traveled 6,000 miles campaigning.
"There's really no change there: keep putting the miles on the pickup, keep talking about more jobs and less government," he said.
"We've just seen a lot of support from everything from the Tea Party groups to the Republican Party to independents and moderates," he said. "I think they are attracted to someone who is not a career politician and worked in the private sector for the past 20 years. Job creation is not a theory for me. It's been a reality for me."
As a Senate candidate, Daines received endorsements from a couple of groups, Gun Owners of America and Concerned Women Political Action Committee.
The state Democratic Party said Daines is now having to eat crow.
"This charade is a lesson in how not to run a congressional campaign, and it has to be tough for Steve Daines," said Ted Dick, the Democratic Party's executive director. "Steve Daines wants a new job so badly he apparently doesn't care which job it is, and Montanans ought to remember that as he tries to tell them why he deserves the job."