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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Finance Ruling, MSU & Gianforte, GOP Rallies Around Trump

Campaign Beat, Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.
"Campaign Beat" MTPR's weekly political analysis program.

On this episode of "Campaign Beat," Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson, and Rob Saldin talk about this week’s campaign finance ruling, the fuss over the Gianfortes' big donation to MSU, and the race for Montana’s seat in the House of Representatives.

Campaign finance ruling

This week, a federal court judge ruled that Montana's limits on campaign contributions are unconstitutional. That means Montana's campaign finance laws revert back to those in effect before 1994. Attorney General Tim Fox is appealing a portion of the ruling and asking for a stay to the part of the ruling that strikes down the current limits on political party donations to candidates.

Governor Bullock's response to the ruling:

"Montana elections should be decided by we the people," Bullock said. "This ruling is a travesty and a step back toward the era of the copper kings. Allowing Montana’s and our elections to be bought and paid for by people with unlimited wealth is bad for the integrity of our elections and our democracy."

"It's hard to know how Judge Lovell's opinion and the appeal of it will affect this election cycle, but it may have impacts down the road," says Sally Mauk.

"No question about that," says Chuck Johnson. "It's probably significant to let people know too that the lawyer for those challenging these limits is James Bopp, and he's a prominent Indiana lawyer who's done a lot of these kinds of lawsuits, and he was the attorney that represented the plaintiffs in the Citizens United lawsuit that successfully struck down a lot of the limitations on how much corporations and labor unions could give to candidates in federal or state races for independent expenditures. Bopp is a leading attorney – probably the leading attorney – in the country on this issue, and he's been very involved in this in Montana as well."

"Gianforte School of Computing"

Montana State University and the Board of Regents are being criticized for accepting a gift of $8 million from Greg and Susan Gianforte for the MSU computer science school, which is to be renamed "The Gianforte School of Computing." The objections are coming both from Democrats, and from some students.

"The timing on this, coming in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign, is at best a bit awkward," says Professor Saldin, "and it's not surprising that some people are raising questions about it. But, outside of the political context, there's really nothing at all unusual about the gift. The fact of the matter is that Montana's public universities – and for that matter, universities all across the country – don't get sufficient funding from the state to do all the things that they do. So they rely on, among other things, major gifts of this sort. And there's just no way Montana State was going to turn down a gift like this, and no university would.

"If you go by what President Cruzado of MSU said at the Board of Regents meeting this week, the timing that drove this announcement had more to do with securing a matching grant from another donor that was set to expire in June. So she [President Cruzado] at least claims that there wasn't any politics behind this."

Here's what Gianforte had to say about he criticisms this week:

"I’ve learned no good deed goes unpunished. We love this state of Montana. We’ve been incredibly blessed, we feel an obligation to give back and serve, and if people want to condemn us for giving away more than half of our income over the last 10 years, they can do that. I’m going to focus on trying to create better jobs so our kids don’t have to leave the state."

Presidential election

Montana Republicans held their state convention recently to elect national delegates, and they appear to be rallying around Donald Trump. Here's how Montana GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann put it:

"I think Republicans are coming together, both locally and nationally, from what I see in terms of the national polls, in terms of the conversations I've been having with Montana Republicans. I think they understand that it's important that Hillary Clinton not be elected president and allowed to appoint potentially three justices to the Supreme Court."

To Sally Mauk, "that sounds less like they're for Donald Trump, and more like they're against Hillary Clinton."

"I think that's definitely the case with some of them," agrees Chuck Johnson, "it was a little odd that they had their convention before the primary, and I don't recall another instance where that has happened. They selected their slate. Some of them, I think, were decidedly Ted Cruz supporters but I believe they're obliged to vote for Trump the first round of ballots at the convention in Cleveland. We'll see. Trump is coming to Billings next Thursday."

"Montana's June 7 primary could be the primary that puts Trump over the total he needs to to have all the pledged delegates required going into the convention. I think that's the case. It'll be California, Montana, and a couple other states that day," Mauk notes.

Discrimination vote

"There was a contentious vote on an amendment in the U.S. House this week that would have offered discrimination protection to LGBT folks, and it failed by a very, very close vote. Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke was among the Republicans who voted no, and that vote will be a campaign issue," says Mauk.

According to Professor Saldin, "Democrats certainly want to make it one. And we've already seen Denise Juneau, his [Zinke's] opponent, come out noting Zinke's vote, calling it an affront to her as a gay American."

"The issue here was an appropriations bill for the Defense Department, and this was a Democratic amendment that I think no one expected to pass. I'm not sure, necessarily, that this is something that Zinke has to be too afraid of losing votes over, but it does absolutely play into Denise Juneau's campaign strategy of trying to peg Zinke as a guy who's out of the mainstream on when it comes to these kinds of issues.

"I think as we've seen the campaign go on, we've seen aspects of Denise Juneau's identity – both as a gay woman, and also her Native American background – come to play an increasingly prominent role in their campaign."

Presidential campaigns come to Montana

The presidential campaigns are definitely paying more attention to Montana in recent weeks, with Bernie Sanders visiting Missoula, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump coming to Billings.

"Campaign Beat" is hosted by MTPR's Sally Mauk, with UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin, and former Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Listen every Friday at 6:48 p.m. and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m., or via podcast.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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