The Libertarian Who Could Hold the Key to the Senate

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Libertarian Sid Daoud might have a slim chance of winning the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in Montana in the 2024 election.

But the exceptionally tight race could determine overall control of the closely divided Senate and that could mean that the IT worker and state Libertarian Party Chair stands to play a pivotal role in shaping America’s political future. Just as a third-party candidate could yet help shape the presidential ballot this year, the same goes for some some key congressional races as well.

“I think one of the things that has surprised me the most in recent years is that I’m actually stuck in the rational middle,” Daoud told Newsweek.

“I always thought of myself as some kind of radical person that wanted to get back to our Constitution, wanted to do things that maybe wasn’t the norm, but I’m finding that I’m stuck in the middle with a bunch of folks that have been kind of left behind by the two big parties,” he said.

With Senator Joe Manchin’s retirement, West Virginia may go red this year, meaning, Democrats could control 50 seats in the Senate. But to reach that, Democrats must defend seats in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin as well as the red states of Ohio and Montana.

Although Montana voted for former President Donald Trump by a more than 16-point margin in 2020, its Democratic Senator, Jon Tester, won in 2018 by a margin of over three and a half percentage points. He will be running for his fourth term and currently appears poised to face Bridger Aerospace CEO and ex-Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, who is vying to represent the Republican Party.

One of the most recent available polls, from J.L. Partners in August, found Tester trailing Sheehy 46 percent to 42 percent, but that was before Daoud entered the race in November.

James Johnson, co-founder of the polling firm said that 38 percent of respondents identified as independent—uniquely high for any state—and that Daoud might draw more votes from the Republican candidate, especially if voters feel emboldened to vote for a third-party candidate because Montana is so firmly Republican on the presidential ballot.

“There’s potential for that third party effect to have a slightly higher impact in Montana,” Johnson told Newsweek.

Sid Daoud, who in addition to serving as Montana Libertarian Party Chair works a job in IT, believes he can stake out the “rational middle” in Montana’s U.S. Senate race. Here, he’s takes a photo while Ice Fishing at Lake 5 near Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana in December of 2022.
Photo courtesy of Sid Daoud

By analyzing the data to identify libertarian-minded voters through isolating those who reported school choice, government spending, and second amendment rights as their top priorities, Johnson found that such individuals constituted 17 percent of those polled and that among that group, Sheehy led Tester 57 percent to 30 percent.

Abortion Rights

Much may depend on the issues that resonate in the election. Democrats are seeking to put abortion rights near the top of their 2024 messaging after apparent success on that issue in 2022 midterms, and that could also mean that those who support limited government could turn away from Republicans.

“In Montana, we don’t like people telling us what to do, especially the federal government,” Tester told Newsweek. “What the Republicans are doing with choice, telling people that they’re going to make health care decisions for them, I don’t think it sells in Montana.”

Sheehy did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment, but according to his campaign website, the former Navy SEAL, who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart Medal, is “proudly Pro-Life.” His political positions largely align with his party’s national platform, but his pro-military and anti-abortion positions conflict with the libertarian views of Daoud.

Eric Raile, a political science professor at Montana State University, told Newsweek that if abortion is framed as a rights issue, it might resonate more in Montana than elsewhere.

“Prior to Roe v. Wade, the parties had different positions on abortion, and the Republican position was really more of a libertarian one that government shouldn’t be involved in regulating that sort of thing. That’s a long time ago at this point, and maybe that memory is gone, but it was part of the libertarian way of thinking.”

Daoud, who’s met Tester and views him as a “genuine person” and “amicable” listener whom he respects, considers abortion one of the few subjects where the two have common ground.

“Personally, I believe that life begins at conception,” Daoud said, “but the one thing that doesn’t put me in line with everybody else that gives that narrative is that I don’t believe that government has any place in this decision.”

The Republican-controlled Montana legislature attempted to effectively bar third party candidates from the Senate race last spring by introducing a bill that would have altered the primary to ensure that only the two top vote getters advanced to the general election. Daoud and Montana Democrats spoke out against the effort and lawmakers ultimately shelved the bill.

Conventional wisdom states that libertarians pull more votes from Republicans, but Daoud said he’s not out to spoil either major political party’s chances and believes that a desire from Americans to embrace third party candidates offers him a real chance at flipping the seat.

Daoud is a strong critic of the two-party system and believes the major parties have spent too much time engaging in polarizing feuds. As a veteran who opposes American involvement in foreign wars, he also sees that as a differentiator from the other candidates alongside his determination to curb government spending.

Raile said that while Montana prefers limited government, the nationalization of politics and rise of political polarization make for a less independent electorate that is more likely to place party affiliation above policy considerations.

Populism

Rural America has become intertwined with the populist platform of the Republican Party under Trump, and Montana ranks among the country’s most rural states. These trends have been on the rise for some time, but the independent streak of Montana has allowed Tester to defy the odds.

However, since Tester’s 2018 reelection, Montana’s population has grown from nearly 1,062,000 people to roughly 1,123,000 people, according to USA Facts, an almost 6 percent change. While Raile said the data on this trend isn’t firm, anecdotally, many of these people are so-called conservative refugees from blue states, people who generally adhere to Republican Party values over traditional Montanan independence.

“A lot of Montanans like to think of themselves as being independent,” Raile told Newsweek. “When you ask people, a big chunk of the population in Montana will say that they’re political independents, but their behavior often tells a different story. So, I think there is this streak of ‘leaving us alone,’ but I think it’s become politicized, and so I think it’s really more of a conservative anti-federal government streak at this point.”

Montana nonetheless receives more federal funds than it pays in taxes. Due to this dynamic, Tester said voters want legislation like the Farm Bill, which outlines U.S. agricultural policy and provides funding to farmers, to pass.

Daoud said that he’d “love” to have Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale, a member of the hard-right Freedom Caucus and potential challenger to Sheehy, join the Libertarian Party, saying “he votes very much like a libertarian.”

Rosendale has opposed Ukraine funding and increases to the federal budget. Given that he represents half the state—Montana holds two seats in the House—it appears likely that some Rosendale supporters would back Doud’s candidacy.

While Rosendale would not say whether he believes his supporters would favor Doud over Sheehy, he told Newsweek “it’s very flattering” that Doud would like to see him join the Libertarian Party and said he enjoyed hearing that the “independent thinkers from around the state support me.”

In addition to combating the state’s possible shift to the right, Tester faces the additional burden of running during a presidential election year. While Tester has done so before, winning in 2012 with Obama at the top of the ticket, the popularity of Trump and unpopularity of Biden—Real Clear Politics has Trump winning 49-28 percent in the state—will no doubt affect the race.

Furthermore, the rising national debt, grim public polling around the economy, and record migration numbers at the border all stand as issues that the Republican Party will leverage.

Raile said after his 17 years in the Senate, challengers to Tester would try to paint him as a Washington sellout—Tester is the Democratic Party’s second highest recipient of lobbying contributions, according to Open Secrets.

However, the Montana Democrat denies being influenced by lobbying money. Tester cultivates a down-to-earth character, overseeing the farm that has been in his family for generations alongside his Senate duties, dropping the occasional expletive and poking fun of the fact he has only two fingers on his left hand after a childhood accident grinding meat.

Tester said he acknowledges that Daoud’s values will resonate for many in freedom-loving Montana too.

“They’re all libertarians. I mean, Democrats, Republicans, they’re all libertarians in the end,” he said.