This column has been updated.

HELENA, Mont. — Montana’s famous fly-fishing attracts anglers from all over the world hoping to catch the big one. Democrats think they might have a big fish on the hook in Republican Sen. Steve Daines. Whether they do or if that’s just another whopper might determine control of the U.S. Senate.

This immense, sparsely populated state appears to be a Republican’s dream. The state’s overwhelmingly White population and rural character — its largest city, Billings, has barely more than 100,000 people — usually indicates a strong red tilt. But appearances can deceive. The state has elected only three Republican senators since World War I and hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 2000. Montanans regularly split their tickets, and they did so again in 2018 by reelecting Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, even as exit polls showed a majority of voters approved of President Trump’s job performance.

Daines and his Democratic opponent, two-term Gov. Steve Bullock, are both political heavyweights. Both men grew up in Montana and returned from short stints out of state to raise their families in their hometowns, and both have been involved in politics since their youth. Both know the state inside and out, and both know the other is a smart, capable foe.

It’s easy to see why Democrats are high on Bullock. He has won three consecutive statewide elections even as Republicans swept presidential contests in Montana in those same years. Ruggedly handsome and gregarious, he’s tailor-made for retail politics in a state small enough that most voters expect to meet their officeholders. He’s also sharp and quick. When I ask him how many guns he owns, he shoots back with a perfect political answer for his individualistic state: “I don’t have to answer, and the government doesn’t need to know.”

Bullock casts the race as a question of who best represents Montana values. He claims a long record of working across party lines to solve problems for all Montanans, whether it was freezing college tuition or expanding Medicaid. He notes that he won the state by four points in his 2016 reelection while Trump carried it by 20. “The same person you see in the grocery store,” he tells me, “is the person who will go to Washington to work for Montana’s interests.”

Bullock takes aim at Daines as a servant of special interests. He contends that Daines’s vote for the Trump tax cuts shows he favors large corporations and the wealthy over average Montanans. He also argues that Daines’s acceptance of contributions from drug companies shows that “the special interests are his interests.” Bullock has particularly focused on Daines’s history of support for expanded trade with China, noting that the senator spent part of his private-sector career with Procter & Gamble working in China and that he has led a number of trade missions to the Communist country during his tenure. The overall message is designed to appeal to Montana’s populist side that led the state to back progressives and New Deal Democrats for the first half of the 20th century and made it one of independent presidential candidate Ross Perot’s best states in 1992 and 1996.

Daines, however, is ready for the fight. Genial rather than gregarious, he is nonetheless a good fit for conservative Montana. He noted in our discussion that he received more votes in the state’s June primary than any candidate in Montana’s primary history. More than 382,000 Montanans cast a primary ballot, nearly three-quarters of the number who voted in the 2016 general election. Daines received roughly 48,000 more votes than Bullock did in his primary; with those numbers, Bullock would still trail Daines by more than 14,000 votes even in the unlikely event that he captured every vote cast for someone other than the two men in both parties’ primaries. That’s a tough obstacle to overcome when both men are already so well known.

That’s also one reason Daines tries to paint Bullock as a liberal who’s out of touch with today’s Montana values. He cites a litany of Bullock’s acts and statements, including his vetoes of a bill banning sanctuary cities and the Born Alive Protection Act, which requires doctors to try to save the life of a child born alive after an attempted abortion. Daines’s particular focus is on Bullock’s F-rating from the National Rifle Association. This is a reversal of the NRA’s prior, more positive assessments of Bullock’s record caused by his changed positions on universal background checks and a ban on assault rifles. Fully 81 percent of Montana voters said they owned a firearm in the 2018 exit poll, and the Daines campaign was flooding the airwaves with ads highlighting the NRA’s rating during my visit.

Daines touts his ability to cross party lines to help Montana. Trump recently signed the Great American Outdoors Act, a bipartisan bill Daines worked on that establishes full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That’s a significant accomplishment in a state where access to public lands comes close to a state religion. He also cites work with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on bills regarding forest management practices and extending eligibility for veterans to receive disability payments related to exposure to the deadly chemical Agent Orange.

Public polls have shown this race within the margin of error all year, an assessment neither campaign disputes. Polls taken in June and early July had Bullock slightly ahead, while those taken since show Daines with a two- to six-point lead. All polls, however, show Trump beating former vice president Joe Biden in the state, a reminder of the partisan hill Bullock must climb yet again to win.

Bullock made that climb harder with a tweet and campaign video during his presidential primary run in which he said he would be a “single-issue voter ... mak[ing] sure Donald Trump is a one-term president.” He says that statement was made in the context of his campaign and that Montanans understood he would fight for their interests and work with Trump where possible if Trump is reelected. That might be, but Bullock needs about 10 percent of Trump’s voters to cross party lines if he is to win. Expect Daines to hammer this comment home in television ads asking Trump backers to be “single-issue voters” themselves.

Bullock might be able to reel Daines in by Election Day. But if he doesn’t, he might think back to that comment as the reason this fish got away.

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