Most political handicappers of Senate races this fall generally assume that the GOP will capture the seat of former-Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT). Cook Political Report ranks the race as “Lean GOP,” a relatively bullish indicator. A new poll from liberal polling firm PPP, however, shows a race much closer than expected. A deeper look at the poll shows the GOP poised to strike an “own goal,” and cede a race critical to the party’s hopes of capturing the Senate.
The new poll, released Monday, shows Democrat-appointed Sen. John Walsh trailing GOP Rep. Steve Daines by 7 points, 46-39. That result is a 10-point gain since November, when Walsh trailed Daines by 17 points, 52-35, in the same poll. A big factor in Walsh’s surge is increased support from Republicans. In November, Walsh trailed Daines 90-3 among Republican voters. Today, Walsh trails just 79-12. That is a significant level of cross-over support for such a high-profile national race, especially for a Democrat candidate still relatively little known in the state.
The Republican Daines has recently been attacking Walsh for believing that partial privatization of Social Security should be “on the table” when discussing reforms to the entitlement program. Democrat Walsh was even attacked on this issue from the left during his primary race. Note to GOP strategists: When you are lifting attack lines from the progressive left, you are doing it wrong.
There is no better indicator of the intellectual bankruptcy of many in the national GOP than this ad. Entitlement programs, very shortly, are set to consume all federal revenues, before a dollar is spent on national defense and the myriad of things the government does. To write-off any market-based reform to entitlements obviates the entire point of having a Republican party.
If the PPP poll is accurate, it also seems to be back-firing politically. The strong shift among Republican voters towards Walsh in the last few months may be based, at least in part, on a second look at Walsh as a supporter of entitlement reform.
It is likely that most of these Republican voters will eventually swing back to Daines as the election draws nearer and the race takes on national implications. A cause for real concern for the GOP, however, ought to be the fact that a Libertarian candidate is also in the race.
Montana has a strong libertarian tradition. In 2012, the Libertarian candidate for Clerk of the state Supreme Court won 42% of the vote as the sole opponent to the Democrat nominee. The party’s Senate candidate, Dan Cox, took almost 7% of the vote in the hotly contested race between Democrat Sen. Jon Tester and GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg. Cox’s vote total was more than the margin separating Tester and Rehberg in the PPP poll.
The Libertarian candidate this election, Roger Roots, wasn’t tested in the poll, but he did participate in the first debate between Walsh and Daines. Democrat Walsh, unsurprisingly, has welcomed Roots in the debates and has said he will invite him to future debates. His candidacy could be a big factor in the final outcome of the election in Montana.
Daines’ attack on Walsh for being open to entitlement reform, of course, will only further boost the Libertarian candidate. If the Republican candidate, after all, is going on record against any kind of market-based reform of an unsustainable retirement program, a conservative protest vote for the libertarian candidate is tempting.
What’s the point of a Republican-controlled Senate if the GOP doesn’t know what to do with it? One would like to still hold out hope for a reversal of our nation’s fiscal fortunes, not simply better management of the decline.