The last two weeks of U.S. Rep. Steve Daines’ Senate run have been steeped in Tea Party politics, first with a $400,000 ad blitz thanking Montana’s lone congressman for opposing Obamacare, and then liberal accusations the Republican is “tea stained.”
Daines told The Billings Gazette on Thursday that he wasn’t casting votes for the Tea Party, as he and other Republicans withheld votes to fund the federal government unless changes were made to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
The government consequently shut down last October until House Republicans, including Daines changed course and voted to fund the government for a few months, while Senate Democrat and House Republican leaders hammered out a one-year budget.
That one-year budget bill passed last week with bipartisan support, but Daines voted no and liberals quickly accused Daines of risking another shutdown and siding with Tea Party Republicans. The budget bill zeroed out compensation to counties with thousands of acres of tax-free federal lands. Daines said he couldn't support the cut, which was harmful to local Montana governments, and therefore opposed the budget bill.
Daines is campaigning to replace U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont, who isn’t seeking reelection and could be confirmed next week to be the next U.S. ambassador to China.
“I think one of the problems in American politics today is loosely throwing around labels,” Daines said. “I think it’s important that we spend time to discuss all the various factors, pros and cons on these votes. They’re not ideological votes. For me, I approach this job more from a pragmatic viewpoint than an ideological viewpoint.
“On Oct. 16, I voted to open up the government again, in terms of the final negotiated provisions” — government funding through Jan. 15 and a debt ceiling increase through Feb. 7 — “because I believe that was the right thing to do for our country and most importantly for the people I represent back here in Montana.”
There were some on the political right who were upset with the vote to reopen the government, Daines said. The lawmaker said he never wanted the government to shut down and saw the two-week closure as government failing the people.
But Daines said there was blame to be shared by both Republicans and Democrats, including President Barrack Obama, who wouldn't agree to delay the launch of the Affordable Care Act for everyone, not just businesses.
The Tea Party poses challenges for Daines in his campaign for U.S. Senate, said Craig Wilson, political science professor at Montana State University-Billings. Tea Party members are still a sizable block of Montana Republican voters, but they’re also unpopular with Montanans in general. Daines needs Tea Party support, but doesn’t need to be associated with them.
“More Montanans have a negative opinion of the Tea Party than a positive one,” Wilson said. “He might not want their endorsement.”
Last October, during the government shutdown, MSU-Billings polled Montana voters about the Tea Party and the results weren’t favorable. Roughly 43.9 percent of respondents opposed the Tea Party, while 29.6 percent supported conservative group. The remaining 26.5 percent of people polled were undecided. Less than half Republicans polled, 48 percent, supported the Tea Party. Opposition among Democrats was strong, at 84 percent.
Daines has the Tea Party endorsement that Wilson suggested the lawmaker might want to avoid. The Tea Party Express in December endorsed Daines’ for Senate. The Tea Party-allied Americans For Prosperity launched a $400,000 TV ad campaign last week thanking Daines for opposing Obamacare, which was also viewed unfavorably by Montanans surveyed in the MSU-Billings poll.
Daines said he has no control over endorsements or the commercials by third-party groups, which had a major advertising presence in Montana’s U.S. Senate race in 2012 and could potentially do the same this year.
This week the left-leaning group Americans United for Change released a “Tea Party scorecard” on Daines and other Republican lawmakers. The group concluded Daines sided with the TEA Party more than 85 percent of the time on 48 votes concerning matters like the Hurricane Sandy assistance, Obamacare, the debt limit and cutting food stamps.
Two years ago, former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont, did his best to avoid association with the Tea Party during an unsuccessful challenge of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, Wilson observed. He suggested Daines do the same. Tester won reelection with 47 percent of the popular vote.