HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines are getting ready for an epic showdown this fall, in one of the top U.S. Senate contests in the country – but, first, they have to win a primary election.
In their respective primaries on June 2, each man faces opposition, which they have essentially ignored.
Yet three of these four largely unknown challengers have mounted campaigns, arguing they offer an independent voice that can speak more frankly and offer better ideas than the “establishment” candidates.
“I think it’s important to stay in the race and make sure people don’t just have someone who is marginally better than Steve Daines, and has a lot of money,” says John Mues, one of two Democrats on the ballot in addition to Bullock.
Mues, an energy engineer and U.S. Navy veteran from Loma, and three other Democrats entered the race last year, thinking Bullock wasn’t going to run against Daines.
Yet when Bullock became a candidate on the last possible day in March, two of the other Democrats withdrew and another one – Michael Knoles – suspended his campaign, although he’s still on the primary ballots that were mailed to all voters last week.
Mues, however, remained in the race, and is touting himself as a progressive alternative with a good resume to challenge Daines in the general election.
On the Republican side, Daines has two challengers in the primary -- Stevensville hardware store manager Dan Larson and former Montana Public Service Commissioner John Driscoll, who last ran for office as a Democrat.
Larson, 40, says he’s a small-government Republican who wants to replace the current range of social programs with a universal basic income and stop the party’s drift to the far right. He says the country needs to invest more in clean energy and examine a value-added tax that could offset income and property taxes.
“So when we talk about the `battle of the two Steves,’ what I think is, if you look at me running against, like, John Mues, that would be a better ballot in Montana,” he told MTN News. “I think it would be a fresh perspective.”
Republicans who voted for Trump wanted to change the establishment, Larson says, and that’s what he offers -- but not with the “politics of division” that Trump is stoking and Daines is enabling.
“When I talk to people, there’s about 85% of things that we can agree on,” he says. “These are the center of the issues.”
Driscoll, 73, of Helena, was speaker of the Montana House in the late 1970s, served on the Public Service Commission and ran for the U.S. House in 2008 – all as a Democrat.
Now, he’s calling himself an “Abraham Lincoln Republican” who got into the race, at the last minute, primarily because he felt Daines had violated his oath to uphold the Constitution by refusing to support having witnesses at President Trump’s impeachment trial this year.
Before COVID-19 shut down the state, Driscoll said he traveled to all 56 counties and posted “Ace of Hearts” signs that asked local people to list those who had taken “compassionate and courageous” acts. Then, in recent weeks, he went back to those locales and collected the signs and posted them on Facebook.
“I’ve had a plan and I’ve stuck to it,” he says. “I’ll just wait and see how it all turns out.”
Mues says he’d be a better challenger to Daines because his background appeals to many sectors of Montana: He’s from rural Montana, he’s a veteran of the U.S. Navy, he’s taught school on an Indian reservation and he’s worked as an engineer in the energy industry.
He said Bullock hasn’t taken strong stands on issues that he feels are needed and would resonate with voters, such as progressive taxation of the “ultrawealthy” and multinational corporations, a livable wage, health care as a universal right and clean-energy development.
Yet he acknowledges that he’s pretty much the odd man out, once Bullock got into the race.
“It’s a different dynamic, for sure,” he says. “No one has said, `You need to drop out, because you’re not qualified.’ They’re saying, think about dropping out, because (Bullock) has far more money than me.”