By Sharon Bernstein
(Reuters) - Democrat Mike Cooney's recent ad in his race to become governor of Montana shows the white-haired 66-year-old rocking out on a drum set, wryly bemoaning having given up his "dream job" to become a public servant.
Aides hope the ad, along with a hefty schedule of to door-to-door campaigning - in gloves and a mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic - will pull the Lt. Governor over the finish line in a Republican-leaning state that Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
With the election just days away, Cooney is in a dead heat with Republican Greg Gianforte to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, who is running for U.S. Senate.
Both are seeking the support of independent voters whose choice will sway the election, one of the country's most hotly contested gubernatorial races.. A poll by Montana State University, Billings, released Wednesday shows each candidate with 45% of support from likely voters, with 53% of independents breaking for Cooney compared to 36% for Gianforte.
"It’s a tough battle but this is what we signed up for," said Matt Fidel, a spokesman for the Cooney campaign. "This is what Mike knew was coming."
In the last days before the election, Cooney fielded a busy schedule, including door-knocking, a visit to the university town of Missoula and making the rounds of morning television shows. Like many Democrats, Cooney had held most of his events on the video-chat service Zoom or other digital platforms in the early days of the pandemic, Fidel said.
Gianforte, a Congressman who in 2017 famously knocked down a news reporter who had asked him a question about health care, has pumped $7.5 million of his own money into the primary and general election campaigns for governor.
To a degree, Gianforte has taken a page from the Trump playbook: a wealthy businessmen who has ridiculed Cooney's long tenure as lawmaker and Montana Secretary of State. In Gianforte's first ad of the gubernatorial race, he showed an image of himself with Trump, who in 2017 took to Twitter to laud the then-Congressional candidate's body slam of reporter Ben Jacobs. Gianforte later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in the case.
"I stood with President Trump to cut taxes and strengthen our economy,” Gianforte, whose campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment, said in the ad.
In a state where outdoor recreation and protection of public lands are vital issues, Gianforte has called for "responsible" development of coal, oil, gas and timber. He criticized the incumbent Democratic administration of Bullock and Cooney for blocking permits and promised to replace the heads of the state's environmental agencies.
While Trump's presence looms over all U.S. state races this year, neither Cooney nor Gianforte has focused his campaign on the Republican president, said political scientist Jason Adkins, a professor at Montana State University Billings.
Instead the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost the state 75,000 jobs, dominate the campaign along with health care and differences over protecting public lands, he and others said.
"If you’re going to run in Montana you’ve got to claim that you’re separate from Washington and that you're going to do things differently and make up your own mind," said Eric Raile, a political scientist at Montana State University, Bozeman.
Raile's polling also shows the two gubernatorial candidates - along with Bullock and incumbent Republican Senator Steve Daines - essentially tied, any differences within the margin of error of the surveys.
At play are a variety of political forces: Trump is still favored to win Montana, but is up in both polls by 7%, far from his 20 point landslide in 2016.
Bullock is the most popular politician in the state, and may have coattails that could help Cooney. Key to any victory will be the final decisions by women and independents. While both groups are breaking for Cooney by about 18 points, another 8% to 10% say they are undecided.
"When Gianforte announced he was going to run, people assumed he was going to win," said Raile. "But in this election, independents seem to be acting and having views more like Democrats."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and David Gregorio)