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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

'Capitol Talk': House Candidates Making Final Push For Votes

"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.
"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.

Eric Whitney: Howdy and Welcome to "Capitol Talk," our weekly political analysis show. I'm Eric Whitney filling in for Sally Mauk. And I'm here with the University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin. Chuck Johnson is out this week.

Rob, it's now less than a week until voting ends in Montana's special election for its seat in the U.S. House on Thursday. I suppose it's not surprising that the campaigns are slinging a lot of mud at one another lately.

Rob Saldin: No, Eric it's not. It's notable, I think even by the standards of political campaigns, how much this one has been driven by negative attacks and negative attacks that are basically personal in nature. There hasn't been much real engagement with public policy issues and that's despite some really significant differences between the candidates. On the one hand we have a Democrat modeling himself after Bernie Sanders and the well left-of-center class-based movement that he led, and say what you will about Bernie but Bernie Sanders knows policy, and the movement he led and continues to lead is firmly grounded in transforming public policy.

And then of course on the other hand we have a Republican with very deep roots in the conservative movement and a long history of supporting causes and organizations that are immersed really in the weeds of public policy. And yet in this campaign we really haven't heard a lot about policy, aside from some rather simple boilerplate about health care, protecting public lands, creating jobs and the like. So in the absence of that, this campaign has been defined I think by negative personal attacks oriented toward basically demonizing the other guy.

EW: The Democrats are really hammering the point that Greg Gianforte has investments in Russian corporations and now I guess a French-Swiss company that allegedly paid off ISIS militants. You think the Democrats are getting much traction there, and how much responsibility do you think Gianforte has to know where his investments are? He's been criticized for being invested in a mutual fund that has some money invested in Russia, so it's just a relatively small investment spread over a bunch of companies. But a couple of those companies are on the U.S. sanctions list. Do you think there's much there there?

RS: No, not really. And I think this latest attack on Gianforte's investments is basically an even weaker version of that earlier attack that you mentioned on his holdings in Russia.

The basic assumption with the Russia business is that if he gets back to Congress, because of these investments he would therefore be more sympathetic to Russia, and maybe not necessarily act in the best interest of the United States, which just seems like a real stretch. It would be like, I think, getting attacked for something in your 401k retirement plan or your standard issue mutual fund. Most people I think are fairly hazy about what exactly is in those kinds of things if they have them and the amount of money that Gianforte has in these companies is tiny, at least by his standards at this point. The real skeletons in the closet such as they are have already been exposed, and these final attacks just don't have quite as much behind them. I guess the one thing that this does is to remind people of the Democrats version of who this guy Greg Gianforte really is at his core.

And that is basically a mean, greedy rich guy who because he's only lived in Montana for a quarter century we should be very suspicious of. So if anyone's forgotten that basic core message this stuff is a good reminder of that.

EW: From the other side there was a report in a news outlet, I guess, "The Washington Free Beacon," that details some embarrassing details that came out of a lawsuit that Rob Quist filed as part of, I guess, a malpractice suit against the physician who he says botched his gallbladder surgery many years ago. The defense in that case dredged up these somewhat embarrassing details about Rob Quist's health conditions and pointed to previous marijuana use. How likely do you think those revelations are to impact voters view of Quist?

RS: I don't think this stuff changes anyone's mind, certainly not among Quist's base, and some of it was just I think plain unseemly for a piece of journalism. But maybe if you want to take the most legitimate part, the marijuana use, even that I think falls pretty flat. It was from decades ago. There was a related story this week in the Lee papers in which they dredged up a citation that Quist received for marijuana possession from almost 50 years ago, when he was a college student. And that one on the merits really strikes me as a stretch. It's just no longer unusual for for political figures to admit this kind of thing when they were young. And public opinion on marijuana use has changed dramatically. The only red flag in that story is that he apparently denied having ever been cited. And the campaign then had to kind of awkwardly set the record straight because it was clear that the reporter Jamie Frayser had the information, but still I don't think this has much of an effect in terms of changing anyone's mind. So just in case anyone needs a reminder about who this guy Rob Quist is at least insofar as Republicans view it, well here's a reminder.

EW: So, to move from these bomb-throwing sort of allegations to some substantive information, we got this week the last campaign finance reports before Election Day. Corin Cates-Carney reported on those for us and we found out that there's been more spending in this special election race than there was in the November race. Twelve million dollars have been spent so far in this race as opposed to $9 million in November. Does that surprise you?

RS: Not really, just because the nation's attention has been focused on a very small handful of elections this time around. There are just a few of these special elections and so it's easier to draw fundraising in from the entire country.

EW: And I think that's what we've seen here, the way that money is coming in from across the country is very different for the two candidates. Rob Quist's support is coming mostly from small donors donating less than $200, and they don't have to identify themselves in campaign finance reports. And Greg Gianforte's campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon says we should be suspicious about that.

Shane Scanlon:  "You have over $2 million pouring in from the east and west coasts, from donors that we know nothing about. And he's not going to disclose that information. He doesn't want Montanans to know about that."

EW: What do you think, does Scanlon have a point there? Has Rob got something to hide here on the small donors?

RS: No, there's nothing suspicious or concerning here at all. This is just totally playing by the rules. If you donate $200 or less you don't have to provide the names of those people and no campaign does and, that in fact that includes Gianforte's campaign, which has received a much more modest $300,000 from these kinds of donations. Now it is true that Quist has received a lot of these small donations from across the country. He's gotten a lot of help in that effort through organizations like the Daily Kos and ActBlue, these organizations have encouraged people to donate and they have.

EW: And Rob Quist is actually proud of that, as he told Corin Cates-Carney while he was on the road. He called in on a cell phone.

Rob Quist:  "You know I'm pretty gratified about that. That's exactly the campaign that I want. To go around saying that I would not take any corporate PAC money. So I'm really just glad to be supported by this grassroots organization."

EW: And both campaigns have brought in from outside roughly the same amount of money, about $3 million apiece. But the types of donations for the Gianforte campaign are pretty different than those that Rob Quist has brought in, right?

RS: That's right. As Quist talked about in that clip he's gotten a lot of these small donors. And certainly it's come from all across the country. It's been a real strength of his campaign. It's big picture another indication that progressives at the base level in this state and the country as a whole are very engaged, and this has been critical for him, Quist's campaign, because he hasn't received anywhere close to the kind of outside support that Gianforte has. Gianforte's gotten a lot more in the form of big donations.

He's also gotten a lot more support from outside groups that hasn't been funneled directly into his campaign, but has been used to run ads in support of his campaign. And of course Gianforte has just recently put a million of his own dollars into his own campaign, which is something that he did a lot of to the tune of $5 or $6 million last fall in the governor's race. But up to this point hadn't done that for his campaign this time for Congress.

EW:  One thing that all that money does, is pay for ads, and the campaign has just released a new pair of ads. And let's let's hear one of the new ads.

Rob Quist: "Did you know half of all Montanans have a preexisting condition?

"Mine was a botched surgery.

"Greg Gianforte says he's thankful for the new health care bill, the one that eliminates protections for preexisting conditions and raises premiums on every Montanan who has one because he gets another big tax break at our expense.

"I'm Rob Quist and I approve this message to represent all Montanans not just the millionaires."

EW: Rob Quist in his closing argument is choosing to hammer Gregg Gianforte, trying to pair him with the House health care bill. You think that's a good strategy?

RS: I think it is in the sense that Gianforte did have a bit of an embarrassment on this issue. He came out and told people in the state that he wouldn't have necessarily voted for it. But then on this conference call that got leaked to the press when he's talking with a bunch of folks back in D.C., donors and the like, that he was thankful for the bill. Now he also has always maintained that - at least during this campaign - that it's very important to cover people with preexisting conditions. So I think that the charge that he's thankful for this bill that took away the guaranteed preexisting conditions is maybe a little bit off, but that's something that Gianforte, we talked about last week on this show, has been a little bit unclear about. Well, if you want to repeal and replace Obamacare, how do you do that while maintaining coverage for preexisting conditions? My view is he hasn't put forth a very clear answer to that important question.

So I think it is one that works well for Quist.

EW: And he has told reporters, including me, that he is thankful that the House health care bill passed because he wants repeal and replace, but then he said, "I wouldn't have voted for that bill. So to me it sounds like he's trying to play both sides of that issue.

EW: The House health care bill is of course very much in the headlines right now, and also very much in the headlines as is President Donald Trump, who Gianforte has very enthusiastically embraced in this campaign, unlike when he was running for governor with all the turmoil going on at the White House. Do you think that that's going to impact how many Republican voters show up at the polls? Do you think they might be more motivated to come to the polls and vote for Gianforte because they feel like they need to protect President Trump? Or that they might stay home because they're disgusted with what's happening in D.C.?

RS: Well Eric, I think Republican turnout is kind of the big question here in the last week. Turnout is actually I think more important for Quist. It's more important for him to get his base out because he has no margin for error. A big Democratic turnout is necessary, but it's not sufficient. The difference is is that there's every reason to think that there will be a big Democratic turnout especially so because of what's been happening in the last White House for sure.

For Republicans, there is a little bit more of a question mark, but there's also more margin for error. The concerns I think on the Republican side, one would be just simply with the Gianforte campaign and Gianforte as a candidate. Remember, this is a guy who just lost in November when all the other Republicans won. This attack that's really been at the center of two Democratic campaigns against him now is that he's he is a rich guy from out of state who doesn't understand Montana. What kind of a toll is that going to take. And the second one of course is all this turmoil surrounding Trump. This whole Comey business in particular. This is all I think unwelcome for Greg, and the fact that people are talking about this is just not the kind of backdrop that Gianforte would would want for this election. That being said, we have to keep in mind a lot of people have already voted. And again Gianforte has a much wider margin for error here. And so he can he can afford some drop off there and still be ok.

EW: I guess again the question is, what is Republican turnout going to look like? Rob Quist can't win with Democrats alone, even if every Democrat shows up he still needs some independents or crossover voters. This weekend Senator Bernie Sanders is going to be here campaigning for Rob Quist. Do you think that's going to help him win crossover votes, or could Bernie Sanders' appearance actually hurt Rob Quist?

RS: I do think it has to be the concern for the Quist campaign that Sanders could hurt him in rural Montana among more conservative Montanans. Bernie Sanders is of course associated with the left wing of the Democratic Party for most of his career. He didn't even call himself a Democrat, because the Democrats were too conservative. So in that way Sanders I think could hurt Quist.

One thing we should note though, is that viewing all these things through our traditional left-right prism of understanding American politics might be missing something. Bernie Sanders does have a kind of outsider populist appeal in the same way that Donald Trump does. And if you look at polls of Donald Trump voters, Bernie Sanders does OK in those polls, at least relative to other leading Democratic figures like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton. You know, Bernie Sanders is up there in the 20s whereas those other figures are down in low single digits. And so if Bernie Sanders and Rob Quist together can try to tap into that populist sentiment that we see a lot of in Montana, you know I think that has to be what they're hoping to do.

EW: I guess we'll know how it all shakes out on Thursday. Thanks for joining us Rob Saldin. We'll be back for one more edition of "Capitol Talk" after the election next Friday.

"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.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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