In a roomful of businesspeople here, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines — and U.S. Senate candidate — is talking their language.
“Politicians like to take credit for creating jobs, but you guys are the job creators,” he says. “What can we do to maybe get out of the way, and let you do what you do best, to grow our economy?
“I’m here to listen, and maybe be a catalyst. I know that government is not the source of job creation.”
Daines isn’t officially campaigning as he talks to a Chamber of Commerce event in Helena, but in those few short sentences, he’s stated the essence of his campaign to become Montana’s next U.S. senator, casting himself as the business exec-turned-politician who can help tame the beast of excessive government.
“Are you going to put more trust in the American people and the American economy to keep more of their money, or are you going to put more trust in the federal government to take that money, and spend it in the way that Washington, D.C., spends it?” he says in a typical comment.
Daines, 51, a former executive for a Bozeman software-development firm, faces two opponents in the June 3 Republican primary for U.S. Senate: State Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula and political newcomer Susan Cundiff, a department assistant at the University of Montana’s business school.
Daines is an overwhelming favorite to win the primary election and take on the Democratic nominee this fall.
U.S. Sen. John Walsh, Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger are competing for the Democratic nomination for the seat that had been held since 1978 by Democrat Max Baucus, until he was appointed U.S. ambassador to China three months ago.
On a daylong trip to Helena and Missoula last week, Daines rarely mentions his Republican primary opponents.
Instead, he talks about Congress and how it needs to listen more closely to the people of Montana — and how things would be different if Republicans controlled the U.S. Senate.
“There’s a big list of things we’d like to push back on, on (bank-regulation law) Dodd-Frank,” he tells a local banking executive at the Chamber of Commerce event last Friday. “But we’re not getting a lot of support from the Senate side.”
The underlying message is that if Montanans elect a Republican, the GOP has a chance to take control of the U.S. Senate this fall and chart a more business-friendly environment in Congress, on everything from health care reform to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to stopping “burdensome regulations.”
Daines is just 17 months into his current job as Montana’s only U.S. House member, elected to that post in November 2012.
But when Baucus announced in April 2013 that he would not run for re-election this year, Republicans around the state started pushing Daines to run for the open spot — a golden opportunity for the GOP to pick it up.
Daines says it wasn’t an easy decision, for he’d just started focusing on his new job. But after talking with fellow Republicans, he says he felt it was a chance he should not pass up, to give Montanans a more conservative voice in the U.S. Senate. He made his candidacy official last November.
Daines said last week the U.S. House has passed dozens of important bills, such as a balanced budget plan, an OK for the keystone pipeline and a measure to force more logging on national forests, and the Senate won’t even vote on them.
“I think Montanans deserve at least to have their voice heard and have the Senate vote on these important pieces of legislation,” he says.
Daines also notes that the U.S. Senate must approve judicial appointees, to the federal bench and the U.S. Supreme Court, and he’s concerned that if Democrats remain in control, “the president and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid will use those last two years to really pack the court with judges and justices that really don’t reflect the values of most Montanans.”
Yet while Daines is crystal-clear on his less-government, pro-business stance, he’s sometimes less forthcoming about how that stance translates to specific policies.
When asked by reporters to identify where he’d cut the federal budget, Daines demurs, saying that each government agency should identify priorities for cutting waste and come back to Congress for approval.
He won’t say exactly what he’d substitute for the Affordable Care Act, if, as he proposes, it’s repealed. Regarding Medicare, he says it may need reform, but it won’t change for current or soon-to-be senior citizens.
On whether he endorses the conservative Tea Party, one of whose main groups has endorsed him, Daines says he’s grateful to have their support — but that he has support from a lot of people.
But, he says, he does support what they stand for: “They believe in more jobs and less government, and that’s what I stand for. There are going to be many, many groups getting behind our campaign.”