In the wake of the 16-day federal government shutdown and budget impasse this month, Montana’s only congressman, Republican Steve Daines, is getting flak from all political corners.
But whether fallout from his role in the shutdown may hurt him in next year’s election is far from settled, political scientists say — and Daines himself seems to shrug it off, saying he took votes he felt reflected the views of most Montanans.
“You’re going to have folks always taking shots at you — that comes with leadership,” he said in an interview last week. “That goes back to the need to ensure you remain focused on solving the problems, serving the people who elected you and not the political calculations. I sleep very well at night.”
Daines initially voted with the House Republican majority that refused to pass a budget without defunding or delaying the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. That refusal led to partial shutdown of the federal government Oct. 1.
However, on Oct. 16, he joined 86 other House Republicans and all House Democrats in supporting the short-term budget deal that ended the shutdown.
Democrats are pounding away on Daines, calling him “Shutdown Steve” for being part of the Republican majority that wouldn’t pass a budget without conditions that President Barack Obama said he wouldn’t abide, leading to a shutdown they say cost the national and Montana economy millions of dollars.
“He was a partner in a reckless and irresponsible political game that inflicted harm on his local economy,” said Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
At the same time, conservatives are blasting Daines as a sellout and coward for voting Oct. 16 to end the shut down and leave Obamacare largely intact.
“When it finally mattered, Daines turned around and voted to allow funding for the implementation of Obamacare to take effect,” said Nathan Mehrens, president of Americans for Limited Government.
Lt. Gov. John Walsh, the Democrat who may end up facing Daines in next year’s Montana U.S. Senate contest, also chimed in just before the shutdown ended, saying Daines must “undo the harm he caused to our economy, veterans, children, seniors and Montana’s working families.”
Daines is expected to announce soon he’s running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Max Baucus, who is retiring and won’t run for re-election next year.
During the shutdown, Daines attended a Washington, D.C., reception by American Crossroads on Oct. 3, billed as a chance for attendees to hear from “top 2014 Senate candidates.” American Crossroads, a political group that spent tens of millions of dollars on campaign-related ads in 2012, is a big supporter of Republican candidates.
Daines also acknowledged he was planning an announcement in early October on his campaign plans, but canceled it because of the shutdown. He wouldn’t say what his plans are, but that he’ll announce them in the months to come.
National polls indicate Republicans are getting more of the blame for the shutdown and most national political analysts say the shutdown damaged Republicans politically.
Last week, the influential Cook Political Report downgraded Daines’ House race in 2014 from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.”
Still, political scientists watching the landscape in Montana say any damage suffered by Daines is likely to be short-term — unless House Republicans spark another nasty budget impasse next year and Daines is perceived to be part of it.
“Voters have a short-term memory,” says David Parker, professor of political science at Montana State University. “They make a decision based on whether they like the person, their views of the current administration and how the economy is doing.”
Congressional elections in non-presidential years like 2014 usually are good for the party not in the White House, Parker says, and the Republican base will support Daines, regardless of how he voted on re-opening the government.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, a leading political website, says if Daines is looking ahead to next year’s general election, when he’ll have to attract independents and moderates to win, his Oct. 16 vote to reopen the government makes sense.
“I think he made the smart political vote, given that the (Senate) nomination is basically his if he wants it,” Kondik said.
If there is any “lasting harm” for Republicans stemming from the shutdown, it probably won’t matter how they voted individually, he added.
Daines said he voted initially to defund or delay Obamacare because a majority of Montanans oppose it, and that he’s still “committed to fighting Obamacare.”
He noted that in the wake of the disastrous roll-out of Obamacare’s state online shopping sites for health insurance, even some Democrats are calling for a delay in the law’s mandate for individuals to have insurance by 2014.
The delay is one of the same demands made by Republicans during the budget stalemate, he said: “President Obama made it clear he would rather keep the government shut down, rather than give Americans any relief from Obamacare.”
Yet Daines said as the shutdown dragged on, he heard from many Montanans who wanted to reopen the government.
“What I hear Montanans saying is that we need more leaders who are not wrapped up in ideology, and leaders who are focused on solving the problems that this country has,” he said. “When you take a pragmatic approach to solving the problems facing the country, those who are ideological purists sometimes have heartburn.”
While Daines has portrayed himself as “pragmatic” and non-ideological, he was one of 80 GOP House members who signed an August letter asking House Speaker John Boehner not to allow any budget bill to the floor unless it defunded Obamacare.
Daines also is a member of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House caucus that includes about 70 percent of the chamber’s Republicans. Daines said the group is “a place to exchange ideas and policy going forward.”