As Bullock weighs change of heart, is the Senate actually in play?

There are paths to a possible Democratic majority in the Senate next year. Up until recently, that didn't appear to be the case.
Image: Steve Bullock
Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration, on June 9, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.Charlie Neibergall / AP file
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By Steve Benen

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign last year, said he has no intention of running for the U.S. Senate this year. But as the filing deadline in his home state approached, a few prominent folks hoped to talk him into it.

For example, former President Barack Obama had a meeting with Bullock in early February. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) met with Bullock in late February. And while those were private chats, and I can't say with confidence what the Democratic leaders told the governor, the New York Times reports that their efforts appear to have had an effect.

Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana is poised to reverse himself and run for the Senate, according to three Democratic officials, a decision that would hand the party a coveted recruit who could help reclaim a majority in the chamber.

As the filing deadline approaches -- the governor will have to make up his mind by Monday -- Bullock has reportedly told allies "he is now inclined" to launch a campaign against incumbent Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

At first blush, some observers may see this as folly: Montana is a red state that Donald Trump won by nearly 20 points, so why would a Democrat think he could win a Senate race in Big Sky Country?

The question is badly flawed. After all, Sen. Jon Tester (D) has won three Senate races in Montana, including a tight race two years ago in which Trump campaigned aggressively against him. For that matter, Steve Bullock's party affiliation didn't stop him from winning two gubernatorial races -- including a 2016 race in which he was on the same ballot as Trump -- and a statewide race for Montana attorney general.

But stepping back, one of the angles to Bullock's newfound interest is the degree to which it may affect the race for the Senate majority. Up until recently, it seemed Republican control of the chamber was unlikely to change anytime soon, regardless of what happens in the 2020 presidential race. But those assumptions are now getting a second look.

To be sure, anyone who says the landscape tilts in a "blue" direction is kidding themselves. Republicans enjoy a 53-seat majority now, and to flip the chamber, Democrats would need the stars to align in a way that's likely to prove difficult.

But it's not impossible, either. Consider some of the marquee contests:

* In Colorado, Sen. Cory Gardner (R) is the only Senate Republican running in a state that Trump lost, and a new Public Policy Polling survey shows him trailing former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) by double digits.

* In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins (R) is facing the toughest challenge of her career, and a new Public Policy Polling survey shows her trailing state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D) by four points.

* In Arizona, appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R) has trailed astronaut Mark Kelly (D) in several recent polls, and a new Public Policy Polling survey shows her down by five points.

* In North Carolina, Republicans haven't exactly been subtle about their fears that incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R) faces a tough challenge from former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D), who is, among other things, a decorated veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new Public Policy Polling survey shows the Republican down by five points.

Those are some of the races campaign forecasters see as the most competitive, but if we widen the aperture a bit, Democratic officials also believe there are possible pick-up opportunities in Georgia, Texas, Iowa, and depending on whom Republicans nominate, Kansas. Add Montana to the mix, and the map starts to appear rather encouraging for Dems.

There is, however, a flipside to all of this. In Alabama, for example, Sen. Doug Jones (D) faces poor odds in one of the nation's reddest states. Some in both parties believe Michigan's Gary Peters and New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen may yet face competitive contests.

But the larger point is, there are paths to a possible Democratic majority. A net gain of four would make Chuck Schumer the Majority Leader, while a net gain of three and a win in the presidential race would give Democrats effective control of the chamber. Watch this space.