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'Campaign Beat:' Distinguishing Between Dems, Women Prepare To March, Stapleton Sounds Off

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

Today on Campaign Beat: outside consultants coming to Montana to work on campaigns; Grant Kier's new Facebook ad; the impact of the women's marches; Corey Stapleton criticizes the media; and Joe Biden's upcoming Montana visit.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Campaign Beat," our weekly political 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.

And Chuck, one of the Democratic candidates for U.S. House announced this week he's getting help from some veteran Democratic consultants. And this is a sign perhaps that some — at least in the National Party — think he has a shot at unseating the incumbent Greg Gianforte. And we are talking about John Heenan.

Chuck Johnson: That's correct Sally. The consultants that are the ones that catch people's eyes are Joe Trippi, a very prominent Democratic consultant who's worked on a number of campaigns including, most recently, the newly elected senator from Alabama Doug Jones. But he's worked for Ted Kennedy. He's worked for Howard Dean, a number of people. And the other name is Celinda Lake, and Celinda Lake is a Montana native who was raised on a ranch down in the Livingston area. And she's a prominent pollster around the country. She does occasionally appear on NPR, that sort of thing. And then another consultant, Erica Walters, who used to work in Montana for the Democratic Party.

So the message in the memo is, this is why we think Gianforte is vulnerable — Greg Gianforte the congressman — and this is why we think John Heenan is the best candidate to beat him. I think this is really a memo for two sets of eyes. One is donors — particularly big donors — PACs, big donors in Washington, New York, that sort of thing. And then also for the press, showing that, you know, Heenan's to be taken for real. He's got big time consultants, and that's what it's for, and you know it lays out the case against Gianforte and lays out Heenan's attributes.

SM: Among those attributes that the memo lays out is that Heenan is someone who, "can bridge the gap between moderates and progressives in the Democratic Party."

CJ: I think so far he's staking out the progressive left in most of his stances whereas Grant Kier is more the middle to the left, so I don't know if that's accurate or not, but if he says that's what he's trying to do we'll watch and see if that's the case.

SM: Joe Trippi and Celinda Lake, Chuck, have worked on Montana campaigns before.

CJ: That's right. Most notably they were the consultants for Mark O'Keefe when he ran for governor and lost in 2000 against Judy Martz for the governor's race. O'Keefe outspent Martz something like three to one and still lost. So, consultants win and lose races, they don't always win. You know, I'm sure they have good track records but I'm sure they have other losses too. So, who your consultant is matters more to certain people — big donors — but it doesn't get you elected in Montana necessarily. They'll come up with the advertising and the polls but it's still really up to the candidate, and that's what it will be this time too.

SM: Chuck, the idea of bringing in non-Montanans to work on campaigns is nothing new. And in fact Senator Jon Tester's campaign has just brought in an out-of-state guy to work on his campaign; and the state Democratic Party has brought in an out-of-state woman to work as their spokesperson.

CJ: Yeah this isn't uncommon. These are kind of itinerant. I don't mean that in a bad way, but they move from campaign to campaign. They might be in Montana this cycle. They might be in, you know, North Carolina next cycle. Most of them are from out of state, which is a little ironic because the Montana Democratic Party always loves to point out when a Republican candidate isn't a Montana native.

SM: Rob, another Democrat running for the House seat, Grant Kier of Missoula, has a new ad out on Facebook showing him out in the snow splitting a bunch of wood.

Grant Kier Ad: "In Montana we take a lot of pride in being prepared for what's ahead. That means chopping wood when the weather's good so you can burn it when the weather's bad. We've got people in Congress who don't plan ahead right now. So we're talking about government shutdowns and not funding CHIP. This makes no sense. We need people in Congress who can think ahead, who can plan ahead, who can make good decisions when decisions need to be made. That's why I'm running to represent all of you in Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives."

SM: And this is a pretty effective ad, I think, Rob. It shows Grant Kier standing out there in the Carhartt jacket. I don't know if it's Carhartt, but it's a similar kind of jacket, stocking cap, ax in hand filling up a woodshed.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, I think it's effective. It's on his Facebook page so I don't know how many Montanans are going to actually see it, but it's effective. And here's the thing that stands out to me about it, is that it really reinforces Kier's basic message. And I think that the real dynamic that we see taking root right now in this race, and that's in terms of style in terms of presentation and how these two leading candidates explain why they're running, why they're doing this. And I think we do see a very clear and important difference emerging between Kier and Heenan, and Chuck kind of touched on this earlier. But Heenan, I think, definitely just comes across as far more populist. He references his career as an attorney. He talks about sticking up for the common working people who are being taken advantage of by various powerful elite forces in our society, specifically singling out corporations, big banks, insurance companies and so on. Right, and so it puts us in somewhat more familiar context; this is the kind of outlook, the kind of rhetoric that we associate with figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It's a message that you need a fighter, someone who's going to go back to Washington and not give an inch against these ill intentioned greedy people who are trying to stick it to you.

Kier, by contrast, and I think as we see in this ad, says basically the real problem we face as a country is that we're too polarized and these people in Congress right now who are so dug into their extreme positions that they're willing to do crazy things like shut down the government if they don't get their way. So Kier's antidote is to do what he built his career around, and that is bridging divides, bringing people together, finding common ground, this kind of stuff. And that's what he says that we need more of in Washington and in the public square more generally.

And so, in the past couple of weeks we've talked about when it comes to policy, the differences between the Democratic candidates are rather muted. And that's true enough, but it's often quite revealing, I think, to see how candidates present themselves, how they explain why they're doing this, why they want to serve in Congress. And it's there, I think, that we really do see a stark contrast between Heenan and Kier, and we see it reflected in this ad.

SM: These were sort of the stylistic differences in the last presidential election. Trump was the fighter and the antagonist, and Clinton was someone who wanted to bring the country together. And we know who won that.

RS: That's right. That's one of the interesting things, I think, about this populist strand right now in American politics, and we certainly see it here in Montana. There's a right wing version of it in the style of Donald Trump, and there's a left wing version of it in the style of Bernie Sanders.

SM: Chuck, this weekend is the anniversary of the women's march and several marches held around Montana instead of one state wide March. It brought a lot of women out, and here's what state Senator Jen Gross of Billings wants to happen as a result of these marches:

"I think the message really is, you know, it's not enough to just stand for something, but run for something. Run for office. Run to the polls and vote. Run with that idea that you have to start a small business or a non-profit. Run to your nearest service organization and get involved, but whatever you do,take action."

SM: And Chuck, I think that is happening.

CJ: Yeah, I think last year's march which drew about 10,000 people at the Capitol in Helena.

SM: The biggest march ever in Montana I think.

CJ: Yeah, the biggest gathering of people for a protest or any kind of a march, I think, in state history. It was more of a protest against President Trump who was inaugurated the day before, and this year, I think, they've decided to decentralize the marches in people's own cities so they don't have to drive on, you know, icy roads to Helena. But, more so to get them active in local groups to run for the Legislature or city and county offices, that sort of thing. It's probably a logical development in the nature of this march.

SM: And the notion that women need to be more involved from local to the national level, I think, is resonating, not just in Montana but across the country. We see a lot more women running for things and that could make a big political shift, I think.

CJ: No question about that Sally. It's interesting in Montana. I don't have the exact figures in my head, but I think the Montana Senate right now, the Democratic caucus I believe two thirds of them are women, and a good share of the Democratic House members in Montana are women. The odd thing is that there certainly aren't matching numbers on the Republican side with women holding as many offices. Haven't heard much about Republican women going to these marches. But, certainly it's an effort to get women to file; if not file for office to help on campaigns, as Senator Gross said to help, you know, their local nonprofits to get out and help campaigns.

SM: Rob, Montana's Secretary of State Cory Stapleton isn't running for anything this year but he sent out this odd statement via e-mail that has a lot of people scratching their heads; not just for the content, but also, why?

RS: It was an e-mail that was critical of the media. The Missoulian had a pretty charged editorial denouncing it. And I think there are two points that have been made. One is, certainly in the eyes of the Missoulian, not the most eloquent piece of writing they'd ever seen. It was murky and unclear what he was getting at. I mean, to my eye, even if it wasn't the most clearly articulated thing we've ever seen, it was pretty clear what Stapleton was kind of getting at. And he was kind of grunting in this general direction that we hear a lot of pretty popular critique of the media; that it's too focused on salacious details of personal lives and all these things. And you know, that's really a criticism that's embraced more or less across the political spectrum.

Corey Stapleton is Montana’s Secretary of State
Credit Courtesy of
Corey Stapleton is Montana’s Secretary of State

Now, conservatives have long had their own unique version of that critique, asserting that the media is biased against them. And more recently of course, Trump has taken that critique several steps further and really made attacking the media a defining feature of his public persona, often in ways that are just totally absurd and do real harm to our civic culture. And I don't think Stapleton went nearly that far. His message was more or less in line with some of the more conventional critiques, especially those that we associate with conservatives.

The other thing though, to my eye the more interesting question, is whether it was appropriate for him to send this message in his official capacity as secretary of state. Which is precisely what he did. It's not at all clear that this email was in keeping with the duties of that job. At the very least, it's certainly not normal for a secretary of state to be sending out an e-mail like that.

SM: Well here's one of the quotes from his statement:

"Media has become language cops instead of investigative reporters."

RS: This again, I think, is just in keeping with this conservative critique of the "mainstream media" as they call it. And certainly similar in certain respects to Trump's critique. I think though, the one question that has raised for a lot of people is whether this is an indication that Stapleton has bigger things in mind; whether this is kind of setting the stage for another run for a higher office. He's already ran for Congress once, in the primary that Ryan's Zinke ended up winning a couple of cycles ago. So, he clearly has the ambition to move up, and I think certainly within Republican circles a lot of people see him as someone with potentially of a very good future in front of him. And this is perhaps one indication that he's trying to establish himself as someone who can do more than simply carry out the duties of secretary of state, but emerge as a leading conservative voice.

SM: It did have a hint of a campaign message.

CJ: It was an e-mail blast that Stapleton's sent out on state e-mail to 130,000 recipients, so it didn't just go to a few people, it went to thousands of them.

SM: Chuck, Democrats are going to have a heavy hitter as the featured speaker at their annual Mansfield-Metcalf dinner in March, and that would be former Vice President Joe Biden.

CJ: He's coming March 10 to speak at the dinner, and I think it's clearly an effort to bring out enthusiasm for Jon Tester. Tester was a senator when Joe Biden was vice president, so he presided over the Senate to break ties, that sort of thing, so I'm sure they're well acquainted. The Democratic dinner is a huge event. It will bring 1,000 - 1,200 people to Helena. They have it once a year. I think they've had other vice presidents. Walter Mondale came out to Montana once to speak at Mansfield-Metcalf dinner, I believe. Of course the biggest was actually moved to Butte to accommodate a bigger crowd, but in 2008 they had the two Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Butte Civic Center and it was pretty well full. It's their major fundraising event of the year.

SM: 2018 may draw other political heavyweights to Montana, we'll just have to wait and see. You've been listening to Campaign Beat, our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk, and I've been speaking with veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. Guys we'll talk next week.

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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