When Republican U.S. House candidate Steve Daines looks at the dysfunction gripping Congress, he sees lawmakers lacking a key attribute he learned during almost three decades in private industry: focus.
With the federal budget deficit spinning ever higher and employment stubbornly low, the former technology executive from Bozeman says it is time to pare down spending and get more money into the hands of the private sector.
The implication is that government cannot cure all ills — and needs to stop trying. That would be done in part by cutting budgets at agencies including the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency.
It's a message commonly heard among the GOP House members whose ranks Daines wants to join. It also has drawn a sharp rebuke from opponent Kim Gillan, a Democratic state senator from Billings, who casts Daines as a threat to Medicare, student aid and small businesses that would be left at a disadvantage to larger corporations.
Daines insists there is no choice but to rein in spending immediately or risk the economic upheaval that has led European countries to adopt severe austerity measures.
"We need to focus on the biggest problems that we face versus making little to no progress on the multiple problems this country faces," Daines said in a recent interview. "The main problem we have is one of spending. ... Everything is fair game. I'd be looking at across the board reductions."
Daines has a two-to-one lead in campaign donations over Gillan, and is seeking to hold onto a seat his party has occupied for the past 16 years. Libertarian Dave Kaiser of Victor is also in the race, although he hasn't reported raising any money and his chances are considered slim.
Still, polls have shown a large percentage of undecided voters, and Daines campaign manager, Zach Lahn, said the campaign will be running advertisements, calling voters and knocking on doors through Election Day.
Despite never holding political office, the 50-year-old Daines has ascended rapidly within his party since first making a political splash in 2007. Then, he led a radio and internet campaign called giveitback.com to goad state leaders into using half the state's budget surplus for $500 million in tax rebates.
A smaller rebate was approved by the Legislature, and Gillan contends Daines' efforts would have set Montana up for hard times after the recession hit later that year and drained much of the surplus.
Since then, Daines has made a failed run for lieutenant governor in 2008, and a U.S. Senate campaign that he abandoned last year when Rep. Denny Rehberg announced his intention to take on incumbent Democrat Jon Tester.
The candidate's father, Clair Daines, a Bozeman real estate developer, said his son's ambitious drive dates to his youth, when he played trumpet in an all-state band and excelled on his high school debate team.
Clair Daines compared his son's political aspirations to his penchant for climbing high mountain peaks.
"What motivated him to climb Granite Peak, the Grand Teton? ... I don't know," Clair Daines said. "Some people, they want to get to the top of the mountain. That's not such a bad trait."
Born in California, Daines moved to Montana with his family when he was 2 years old and grew up in Bozeman.
Former U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer recalls debating against Daines during high school competitions and said he was impressed even then by Daines' quick grasp of issues. Mercer referred to Daines as a "raw intellectual capital-type guy" who would be able to settle quickly into Congress without an overly steep learning curve.
After earning a degree in chemical engineering from Montana State University, Daines worked for the consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble, which sent him to China to help run a manufacturing plant. Daines rose within the company's ranks and said he was offered a promotion at its headquarters in Cincinnati, but passed up the opportunity to move back to his hometown of Bozeman.
Working as an officer in the family construction business, Daines was introduced by his now-deceased sister to Greg Gianforte, the founder of a Bozeman-based computerized customer service startup called RightNow Technologies.
The two men and their families started to camp and hike together, and Gianforte said he became so impressed with Daines personally that in 2000 he offered him a job running RightNow's customer care division.
"Customers trusted him. His word was as good as his bond, and that was the basis on which we ran the business," Gianforte said.
Daines became a vice-president at RightNow, first heading its North American team and later overseeing the Asia Pacific region, Gianforte said. He left the company in March to campaign full-time.
Gillan has attempted to gain political traction against Daines by highlighting RightNow's contracts with federal agencies, which she says reveal a double-standard given his central theme of smaller government.
But Daines says the issue works in his favor, a real-life example of private industry stepping in to reduce inefficiencies in government. He says agencies were attracted to the customer service sold by RightNow — which was bought earlier this year by Oracle, Inc. — after seeing its benefits in private industry. In 2008, Daines was tapped by Republican gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown to be his running mate in an uphill battle against popular incumbent Brian Schweitzer. Brown, a former state senator currently working as an oil industry consultant, said in an interview he was attracted to Daines' business background, his pro-life stance and their shared belief that the next generation was threatened by failing government policies.
The Brown-Daines ticket suffered a crushing defeat. Schweitzer and running mate John Bohlinger garnered more than twice as many votes as their Republican opponents, and cruised to a second term.
Any impression Daines left on voters appeared to have partly dissipated by the time the House race was under way: A Lee Newspapers poll last month showed more than one of every four voters did not recognize the Republican candidate's name.
But Brown said Daines' place on the 2008 gubernatorial ticket brought him something equally valuable — the chance to run a statewide campaign and forge relationships with Republican leaders across the state.
"The fact of the matter is, people's memories are short," Brown said. "But more than anything, it brought him out on the stage of seeing how this all goes on and it gave him some experience."
He added that Daines' strength lies in his ability to hone in on a handful of key issues including jobs and taxes. "You don't want to get distracted on stuff that's not really that important," he said.
Daines summed up his approach toward government by drawing a parallel with his widowed great-great grandmother, who took advantage of federal homesteading policies to establish a place for her family near Conrad, Mont.
"It's not saying there's not a proper role for government, it's just saying less," he said. "We have more government than we can afford today."