Despite long odds, Curtis stresses grassroots possibilities in Senate race

By Andrew Bixler

Community News Service, UM School of Journalism

Amanda Curtis is running to become Montana’s junior U.S. Senator. A former math teacher from Butte, her campaign was hastily thrown together following the implosion of Sen. John Walsh’s campaign amid plagiarism allegations.

State Democrats selected Curtis in August, leaving her 80 days to raise funds, assemble a campaign team and build her case to keep a seat that has been in Democratic hands for more than 100 years.

It’s a long-shot campaign that Curtis said she is more than comfortable with.

“It’s a populist, grassroots effort made by people just like me,” Curtis said. “It’s not a bunch of millionaires trying to protect their fortunes.”

Curtis has only one term as a state legislator under her belt, and at 34 she would be seven years younger than any other U.S. senator.

Such things have led some to question her preparedness for the job, but Curtis has no doubts.

“My experience comes from growing up in Montana, not from legislating,” Curtis said. “I don’t have years in politics, which means I’m actually connected to the people I want to represent.”

The job would come with a steep learning curve. Senators, in addition to overseeing the federal budget, must weigh in on everything from judicial appointments and ambassadorships to treaties and foreign policy decisions.

On foreign policy questions, her answers are limited. She called the Islamic State’s brutal campaign in Syria and Iraq “terrible,” and her answer is to call on the president to develop a plan to combat the threat, but she said the U.S. also needs “a clear exit strategy.”

On domestic issues she turns to her own life for guidance. She has advocated for expanded background checks for gun purchases – her brother committed suicide playing Russian roulette when he was 17. She supports implementing the new Common Core education standards, citing her own experience in the classroom.

But she often encounters issues like immigration on which she is the first to admit her views are still developing.

“I’m quickly becoming apprised on things,” she said recently. “I’ve been talking to lots of people and hearing lots of things, which I think is the important part at this stage. I’m a quick study.”

Her opponent, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, more or less refuses to talk about her. The day she entered the race, he said in a press release, “This November, Montanans will have a clear choice between my positive agenda for more jobs and less government, or more government and fewer jobs.”

A look at the political prognosticators may explain Daines’ silence. He holds a 20-point lead in the latest Rasmussen poll, and Nate Silver, the political statistician, has given Daines a 99 percent chance of winning.

But that doesn’t mean Montana Democrats have lost all faith.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said he supports Curtis fully and has been making fundraising calls on her behalf. And the traditional pillars of the Democratic Party have all backed her, including Montana’s two largest unions, the AFL-CIO and the teachers’ MEA-MFT, as have most environmental groups.

Curtis acknowledged she faces an uphill battle, but remains optimistic, and even said she has some recent political history on her side.

“Remember, when Tester first ran for the Senate he was outgunned and outmanned and inexperienced too,” she said. “And we all know how that story ended.”

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On cusp of historic GOP win, Daines seeks to moderate his positions

By Ric Sanchez

Community News Service, UM School of Journalism

First-term congressman Steve Daines is set to end a century-long Democratic lock on one of Montana’s U.S. Senate seats.

Throughout his campaign, Daines has stressed his roots in the private sector. He left Proctor & Gamble to return to Montana in 1997 and invest in a cloud-computing startup called RightNow Technologies. The company’s sale to tech giant Oracle made Daines a wealthy man. Today, his assets are reported to range between $8.9 million to $32.7 million.

His Democratic opponent Amanda Curtis, a one-term state legislator, said Daines’ wealth has made him an ineffective representative in Congress and that his politics put him out of touch with most Montanans.

“It’s not how conservative I feel that he is,” she said. “It’s based on his record.”

During his time in Congress, Daines co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act and voted to extend deadlines for employer provisions under the Affordable Care Act. An analysis of his voting record by Montana State University political scientist David Parker found Daines is the state’s most conservative representative since World War II.

Parker said Daines’ record may put him at odds with a state that is not as politically red – or conservative – as it might appear.

“My impression is that it’s a far more purple state,” he said. “I think people are comfortable voting person rather than party.”

While not specifically refuting the conservative claim, Daines countered that he is not afraid to cross party lines on critical issues that cannot be reduced to “labels.”

“Sometimes I’ll cast a vote and the folks on the left will be upset,” he said. “Sometimes I cast a vote and the folks on the right will be upset.”

He cited his vote for the Violence Against Women Act as one his conservative allies opposed, although 85 other Republicans also voted for the bill’s passage last year.

He talks about his timber bill as part of his campaign to rein in government spending and encourage business development. His posters and bumper stickers still carry the slogan “More jobs, less government” that helped him cruise to victory in 2012.

But Daines has also been careful not to divide his own core Republican supporters. During this year’s campaign, he’s received emails of support from GOP heavyweights like former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, from the party establishment and tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

In the end, both Parker and GovTrack, a website that tracks congressional votes, report that while Daines is conservative for Montana, his votes put him in the middle of the national Republican spectrum.

It’s a position that has helped solidify his role as front-runner in the race. Political statistician Nate Silver has given Daines a 99 percent chance of defeating Curtis.

So it’s not surprising, experts said, that Daines has run a safe campaign, focusing on his family and continuing to introduce himself to voters. Still, he faces one more test: a debate with Curtis in Billings on Oct. 20.

Parker said Daines’ best bet is to play it safe.

“I think all he needs to do is say, ‘Hi, I’m Steve Daines. I created a lot of jobs and I’m kind of moderate,’” he said.