'Capitol Talk' Unpacks The House Race, Mail Voting, And The State Budget
Can the governor's amendatory veto bring back the mail ballot option for the special election? We parse Quist's new TV ads and his decision not to participate in a public broadcasting statewide debate. We also discuss what Gianforte gains or loses by keeping a low profile. Then we look at how Tester's Gorsuch vote might affect his re-election chances next year. Finally, we remember the well-respected former Helena legislator Mignon Waterman who died this week.
Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Capitol Talk" our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk, and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Chuck, Governor Bullock has issued an amendatory veto that would allow counties to conduct the upcoming special election on the U.S. House Seat to be conducted by mail. And I guess the question is, will the Legislature approve that as well?
Chuck Johnson: That is the question Sally. He applied the veto to, kind of, a general election reform bill by Rep. Bryce Bennett of Missoula. I would guess the amendment would probably fly in the Senate, I don't' know about the House. It does take both houses agreeing to the amendatory veto to then go back to the governor, so that's the question. But it's a new twist to what's been a long debate this session and it would make some changes that would allow counties the option of issuing mail ballots only for this election, and this election only. It wouldn't be a permanent thing.
SM: Well, we'll see how that plays out. Chuck there was a lot of action this week on both the spending and revenue sides of the state budget, and the key question there is, does that action give us any clearer picture of what that budget is likely to look like?
CJ: Well, the Senate added about $19 million in general fund spending and $57 million in total spending. The House will have to decide whether to accept or reject those additional spending dollars. And if it accepts it, then the bill will go directly to the governor. If it doesn't accept it, it'll go to a conference committee, so I don't think we can say for sure what will happen on those yet.
Probably the more controversial action was that House Taxation added $100 million to the revenue estimate, and Governor Bullock was not happy about that.
SM: He's not happy at all with that, and here's what he had to say:
"If the Legislature walked out, passed House Bill 2 tomorrow, didn't do anything more with revenue, they'd be walking out and guaranteeing that we'd be walking back in here at some point in the next two years for a special session. And again, I don't think that's how you manage a budget. I think Montanans expect more," Bullock said.
SM: Chuck is this just a negotiating tactic, or is Gov. Bullock really concerned about the possibility of a special session needing to be called over the budget?
CJ: I think both Sally. He was saying that the Montana economy would have to grow by unprecedented amounts to reach that $100 million in additional revenue they added, and he says he'd just love to see that happen, but if it doesn't we've got big problems, and he'd have to order spending cuts in July.
SM: And of course we still, Chuck don't know how infrastructure funding is going to fit into all of this.
CJ: No, it's kind of an interesting battle between the Senate and the House. The Senate bill would spend about $98 million. The House bill of $33 million was amended to make it about $77 million, and that's been rejected by the House. So the Senate bill will arrive over the House and it'll be up to the House to amend it or reject it. I honestly think that there are plenty of Republicans in the House who want the lower number, if any at all. So we may be looking at a smaller bill. But there's also a kind of a coordinated effort by representatives from Billings, Great Falls, Bozeman and Butte to get the statewide building projects in. The Romney Hall at MSU, the veterans home in Butte, and buildings at MSU Billings and Great Falls College MSU. So we'll see what happens. Too early to say at this point.
SM: We'll still lots of work to be done, that's for sure.
Rob, in the U.S. House race Democrat Rob Quist finally has not one, but two ads on the air, both with a folksy feel-good message, here's one of them:
"There's nearly 300 millionaires in Congress, but not one Montana folk singer. After a career using my voice for the Montana we love, I will be a voice for you. To defend our public lands from private developers, fight for Montana farmers and ranchers, not Wall Street banks, and for healthcare we can afford. I'm Rob Quist and I approve this message because there's enough millionaires in Washington, and I'll be a voice for the rest of us."
SM: Well, except for the dubious grammar, this is a pretty good ad, Rob.
Rob Saldin: Yeah, sure. Look, big picture: when you think about campaigns, how they tend to roll out their ads, you usually start with positive, feel-good spots that are basically looking to introduce the candidate to voters. Then once you've hopefully established that foundation, some name recognition, some positive vibes for your candidate; then you move on to more detailed policy ads and attack ads looking to drag down your opponent. And these Quist spots just seem to be kind of classic, early in the campaign, positive ads looking to introduce him to voters, get his name out there. And they seem to me to be quite effective on their own terms. We see Quist's unique strengths on full display: his deep roots in the state; his connection to rural Montana; a kind of nostalgic reminder of the good old days with the band. So these ads just do a nice job of presenting Rob Quist as a familiar face, as one of us.
I guess the only problem is that his opponents are a couple steps ahead. Greg Gianforte had these kind of positive introductory ads up and running weeks ago, and the Republicans already have some negative ads up hammering Quist as a crazed liberal and a deadbeat. So the Democrats are playing a little bit of catch-up here, and obviously the clock is ticking.
SM: But the ad does get a dig in to Gianforte when he talks about there are already enough millionaires in Congress. He's definitely talking about his opponent there as well.
RS: Sure. And I think the other thing that I notice in that ad and that we've seen just in Quist's rhetoric out on the campaign trail is he's really emphasizing public lands. And I think that's an especially good issue for him. You know, obviously Democrats like that, but Greg Gianforte has a little bit of a problem on public lands. You know he talks about himself as a big supporter of public lands, but the issue of the lawsuit against the state was something that really hurt him, I think, in the governor's race, and so that's something that Democrats and Quist will be looking to capitalize on. And you do see some references to that in these ads, but overall I do think these ads are much more in the kind of trying to build up Quist's positives and introduce him, or reintroduce him to Montana voters.
SM: The Quist campaign had some head-scratching this week though Rob, over their decision not to participate in a statewide debate with Greg Gianforte that was to be aired on both public radio and public television. Full disclosure: we are public radio, and so we had a stake in airing this debate. But the Quist campaign decided not to do it.
RS: Yeah, it's quite surprising to the point of being baffling. You know typically a candidate in Quist's position — that is, the underdog — basically adopts an anytime, anywhere mentality when it comes to debates. The overriding dynamic at work is that the underdogs typically want to debate as much as possible, and the favorites want to debate as little as they can get away with. And that's because the underdog has less to lose, everything to gain. Debates just represent one of the few chances an underdog has to really reach a broader audience, gain some momentum, and of course there's always the possibility that the favorite has a bad outing or says something weird. So all that is to say it's quite unusual for someone in Quist's position to decline an opportunity to debate.
SM: Here's the reason Quist's Campaign Manager Tina Olechowski gave. She said the issue was timing:
"May 1 is when the early vote starts, and also it came down to timing. Rob is participating in a debate two days earlier at MTN News, May 1 the early vote starts, and Rob will be going out there talking to voters as the ballots drop."
SM: Well, it's true that Quist has agreed to do a statewide debate on commercial television, Montana Television Network two days earlier than what was going to be the public broadcasting debate. And it's true that May 1, voters start voting by mail. But so what?
RS: Well, good question Sally. I certainly don't have a good answer. Again, I just go back — I don't know why Quist would decline an opportunity to debate. It seems like at most they would have to cancel one or two events. And you know, there's not even any reason to think that those events have even been scheduled yet anyway. The one thing it does make you wonder is if the Quist campaign just thinks despite all the upsides that debates typically hold for the underdog, that maybe it's still not a setting in which he's going to be comfortable, and that the chances of the debate going badly for their guy is high, and just makes it not worth it.
SM: And we should also point out that Greg Gianforte isn't exactly being front and center during this campaign either. He's laying pretty low. Not holding a lot of campaign events, certainly not going around the state in the same way as Rob Quist is. As far as I know, he has not even been to Missoula since he was nominated.
RS: Yeah, that's, I think, especially noteworthy because it's a shift. He did a lot of events when he was campaigning for governor. But he has a totally new campaign staff, and clearly they're taking a different approach. One thing that strikes me is that they may just feel like they're in good shape and don't have to do that kind of campaigning. Their candidate is already well known. They have a lot of money, they're raising a lot of money, they have this person fortune to draw on. They already have plenty of ads up on the air. It does occur to me that maybe they perceive that the risk of something going wrong just makes these things not worth doing. You know we've seen all these town halls across the country; Republican members of Congress kind of getting embarrassed, and they may feel like it's not worth that risk. I think also the other thing we've seen over the last couple weeks, they may perceive that the Quist campaign is kind of self-destructing with the financial issues, with this declining the debate. And so a lot of campaigns would say when stuff like that is going on step out of the way, don't say anything, don't risk drawing attention away from some of these negative stories.
SM: Chuck, the next big election after this House race is going to be Sen. Jon Tester's effort to win re-election in 2018, and this week Tester joined his party in voting against the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. And that's a vote his opponents will for sure try to use against him and indeed already are.
CJ: Yes, Sally. There have been a number of ads running and social media calling on Tester to vote to confirm Judge Gorsuch. And of course the other Montana senator, Steve Daines voted to confirm Gorsuch and was saying he would do so weeks ago. On the other hand, it further endears Tester to the groups on the left side of the political equation. Some of the other Democrats from so-called red states that went for Trump switched party lines and voted for Gorsuch's nomination. So Tester sort of stands alone as one of the few Democrats in a mostly red state that did oppose the confirmation. I think that will help Tester get support from groups that like that decision. So I think it cuts both ways.
SM: Well, finally Chuck, I want to mention the passing of another great Montana citizen this week, and that was former Helena legislator Mignon Waterman passed away, and certainly is someone who did all she could to make Montana a better place.
CJ: Yes, Sally. Mignon Waterman, I think , was probably best known in the legislature as a real fighter to get more healthcare and human services to poor people. And she worked across the aisle with Senator John Cobb of Augusta, and it was kind of an odd alliance that crossed party lines, but they did a lot of good for people that needed help. She'll be missed.
SM: You've been listening to "Capitol Talk" our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Thanks guys.
"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.
Tune in to "Capitol Talk" online, or on your radio at 6:35 p.m. every Friday during the session, and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.