“Beautiful day enjoying our public lands and hunting with @SteveDaines,” Montana Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale tweeted back in October 2018, along with a photo of himself and Daines, the state’s junior senator. The pair were both clad in camouflage and grinning in front of a mountain vista, hunting rifles slung over their shoulders. It was the final stretch of the midterm campaign, and the photo op was part of an effort to rebrand Rosendale as a public-lands supporter.
Rosendale was trying to unseat senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, and despite the campaign taking place in a conservative state that Donald Trump had won by 20 points two years earlier, his opponent was seen as having a slight edge with election day approaching, largely because his support for public lands made him popular among independents and even some conservatives. Rosendale, in contrast, was on the record during a 2014 run for Congress as backing the transfer of federal public lands to the states, an increasingly toxic position in Montana and throughout the West. By 2018, he was eager to demonstrate his repentance, while Daines, two years away from his own reelection bid, was eager to help him. But they could not outrun their inauthenticity: the spot they chose to mug for the camera was not, in fact, on public land. It was on a ranch belonging to Robert E. Smith, the conservative media mogul and director of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Locals familiar with the scenery immediately called out the visual gaffe, which highlighted a preference on the part of Daines, Rosendale, and their fellow Republicans for appearance over substance on public-lands issues.
Tester defeated Rosendale by 3.5 points, and the Republican postmortem was clear: their candidate’s weakness on public lands cost him votes. Tester had campaigned on a consistent record of supporting the beleaguered Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and as an advocate for federally designated wilderness. Against Tester’s record of action—which included a successful bill to enlarge the Bob Marshall Wilderness—Rosendale’s lip service came up woefully short.
The Republican Party, and Steve Daines in particular, took note. A fundamental problem has emerged for the GOP throughout the West: the old planks of fiscal conservatism, maximum local control over federally managed public lands, and strong support for extractive industries are not resonating the way they used to. In Montana, and in the Mountain West more broadly, there’s arguably no single issue that unites the middle more than public lands protection. A January 2020 poll by Colorado College found that 84 percent of Montana voters say that issues involving clean water, clean air, wildlife, and public lands are important in deciding whether or not to back an elected official. Across the Mountain West, the number of voters who say they prioritize those issues above all others has jumped from 31 to 44 percent since 2016. “In the 2018 election, whether a candidate ran for governor, senator, or representative, those who showed support for the West’s outdoors, parks, and public lands had a leg up in connecting with voters,” according to the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based nonprofit that studies attitudes about public lands, environment, and conservation. “I think the importance of public lands and conservation has only grown,” says Jesse Prentice-Dunn, the CWP’s policy director. “We’re really talking a political third rail here.”
This means it is Daines who now must burnish his credentials before a skeptical electorate heavy with public-lands voters. In what has been billed as the most expensive race in Montana history—$143 million and counting—Daines is battling to save his own seat from a challenge by Montana governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat who, like Tester, enjoys a reputation as a public-lands and conservation champion and has a proven record of winning independents and centrist Republicans. Independents make up a third of the Montana electorate, and in this critical election year, Daines’s ability to convince those voters of his trustworthiness as a conservationist may decide the partisan balance of the Senate.