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The U.S. Senate race in Montana could determine which party controls the chamber next year. Montana happens to have the lowest rate of coronavirus infections in the country, and that's something Democratic Governor Steve Bullock touts in his challenge to Republican Senator Steve Daines. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on how the governor's handling of the pandemic may affect the race.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At a free mass testing site on the Flathead Reservation, hundreds of people are queued up in idling cars. They're waiting an hour or more for the irritating nose swab test. But most, like Francine Van Maanen, are just grateful to finally get one.
FRANCINE VAN MAANEN: Well, we enjoy the fact that they have this testing available to us, so why not get checked, you know?
SIEGLER: Nurses wearing shield face covers put the swabs in plastic tubes while busily scribbling notes on clipboards.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're not going to get a break at all. It's going to be this all day.
SIEGLER: About a thousand people will get tested here today. It's part of Governor Steve Bullock's recent goal to do community surveillance testing of 60,000 Montanans a month. Now, they've yet to even come close to that. And daily new case numbers are rising again but, so far, only by single or double digits. Bullock stopped by the Flathead site for a progress report.
STEVE BULLOCK: This is big and this is overwhelming. Now let's start talking about when we're going to do it again.
SIEGLER: The Democrat recently reopened his state, lifting its 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers, saying there's ample contact tracing now.
BULOCK: Yeah, we may see positive cases, but we'll also identify those positive cases before they start spreading.
SIEGLER: The one-time presidential candidate is in his element wearing jeans and cowboy boots, his Ray-Bans shielding against the glare from the sun hitting snow high on the mission mountains. Bullock has termed out as governor, and after months of insisting he wouldn't run for Senate, just before the filing deadline, he changed his mind. Then a few days later, the pandemic hit.
BULOCK: I think there'll be a time for sort of the campaigning side of that, but that hasn't been, certainly, my concern or where I've really been putting the time.
SIEGLER: But the pandemic is in the news every day, which so far hasn't exactly hurt Bullock who, until recently, had been seen as the underdog.
CHRIS MEHL: He's dominating the airwaves. You can't turn around without seeing a story about the governor. He's on every front page, the newscasts and everything else.
SIEGLER: Chris Mehl is the nonpartisan mayor of Bozeman, the state's fastest-growing city that has swung blue lately. This university town near the ski resorts and Yellowstone National Park was also Montana's initial hot spot for cases.
MEHL: Now it's, in a sense, become what he's tied to. The issue for him is the competency of handling the pandemic, both on the health side but also an economic recovery side.
SIEGLER: Bozeman is also the hometown of Republican Steve Daines. He doesn't think the public health crisis itself will be that much of a factor come fall.
STEVE DAINES: I think by the time voters start to cast their ballots, I think this election is going to be a jobs and economy election.
SIEGLER: In Montana, Daines' reelection chances may depend on President Trump remaining popular here. Daines is one of his staunch supporters. When Trump tweeted the so-called squad should go back where they came from, Daines doubled down in support. He was also one of the few Republican senators to publicly praise the president when peaceful protesters were cleared out from in front of the White House so Trump could pose holding a Bible.
DAINES: Montanans are going to vote for President Trump. He's going to win Montana.
SIEGLER: Trump came to Montana four times in 2018, failing to unseat the state's other senator, Democrat Jon Tester. His expected return for Daines is prompting the same public health concerns as at recent rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix.
DAINES: That bridge will be crossed when there is a decision made to have a rally. The president has told me that he's planning to come to Montana.
SIEGLER: Montana can be all over the map politically. When Daines was elected in 2014, he took over a Senate seat the Democrats had held for 100 years. And in 2016, when Trump won Montana by nearly 20 points, Steve Bullock was reelected as governor. Just like during his long-shot presidential bid, Bullock is touting his bipartisan record from COVID to Medicaid expansion to an attempt to tighten clean water rules.
BULOCK: Look - I stood up to President Obama multiple times. I'll work with whoever it is when it's in the best interest of Montana.
SIEGLER: Now, one place Bullock has taken some heat for his handling of the pandemic is in national park gateway towns, like West Yellowstone.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He got you all right?
SIEGLER: Montana's entrance gates opened three weeks after Wyoming's, as per Governor Bullock's order. Travis Watt manages a hotel and a couple other businesses here in town.
TRAVIS WATT: I would have loved to seen us open earlier. I could understand why we didn't. I'm glad he didn't wait till longer. I know there's a lot of pressure to push till later.
SIEGLER: Watt didn't vote for Bullock for governor, but he likes how he's managed the pandemic.
WATT: I think he's done really well. It's a unique situation. And you look at some things going around in the country and I think Montana sits pretty good.
SIEGLER: While Daines can probably win Montana with the big turnout from the Trump base and rural voters in towns like this, Bullock will need people like Watt to consider crossing over, just as he needs coronavirus cases to stay low and the economy to rebound.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Gallatin County, Mont.
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