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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Campaign Beat:' Tester's Risky Vote, Bundy Supporters Rally, Women March - And Hunt

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

Today on "Campaign Beat" we talk about Senator Tester's risky vote against ending the government shutdown; the healthy fundraising figures from Rosendale and Fagg; the political impact of the Bundy anti-fed movement in Montana; and a new twist on a classic Montana campaign photo.

Listen in now on "Campaign Beat."

Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Campaign Beat," our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by veteran Capitol reporter Chuck Johnson and University of Montana Political Science professor Rob Saldin.

And Rob, I think both supporters and opponents of Senator Jon Tester are still scratching their heads over his vote against ending the government shutdown. He was one of only a few Democrats to vote no. And his reasons were not the same as the others.

Rob Saldin: Well right, it was a surprise. You look at the Democrats who didn't support this. This was not a randomly selected group. They were from the left wing of the Democratic Party from the bluest states. The thing that a lot of those folks have to worry about isn't the Republican beating them in a general election, but rather getting primaried by someone who's farther to the left. A number of them are looking at running for president and are eager to cozy up to the progressive base; so you have all those people plus Jon Tester, in an election year in a red state that went for Trump by 20 points, so just on the politics of it, it's surprising because it's not a great look in your re-elect year in Montana to be lumped in with that coalition.

And then the other curiosity here, as you suggest, is Tester's explanation of his vote. Everyone else who voted no was laser-focused on DACA and the status of the so-called "dreamers" in the immigration debate. But not Tester. He had to kind of awkwardly go out of his way to say no, no that wasn't the reason for me. He says that he wanted to send a message to Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer that Congress needs to pass a long term budget and quit doing the short term continuing resolutions.

SM: Well here's how Tester explained his vote:

"I'm wired to fight, and I thought there was a better way to do this. In fact, if Mike Mansfield was alive right now he'd be shaking his head in total disgust, because you've got to work together and you've got to get things done. Nobody's paying attention back here right now."

SM: Rob, he is probably right that Senator Mansfield would be disgusted.

RS: For sure, and I think most people should be disgusted. This short term budgeting, it's an insane way of running the government. It inevitably leads to these seemingly endless rounds of silly brinksmanship and it creates some real chaos. But the problem with all that, it seems to me, is that Tester's explanation gets totally overshadowed by the DACA issue. He's pretty much out there all on his own on that. And plus, everyone knew this thing was going to pass easily. So Tester's protest vote was basically a symbolic gesture here. And so what you're left with is a politically risky vote that's very easy for Republicans to exploit. And with no real upside payoff for the things that Tester says that he cares about. So it strikes me as a very odd place to draw your line in the sand.

SM: And his Republican opponents have wasted no time panning him over this vote. You are sure to see it show up in campaign ads against him.

RS: Yeah, I mean, they're saying it was all about the immigration issue and the dreamers. And again, for most of the Democrats that was what it was about. Tester wants to say it's about something different, but it's very easy to lump him in. And you know there was a piece in Politico this week saying, I think, what a lot of people are saying; that maybe this really changes the race, pushes it much more in a position where a Republican could come out on top. I tend to think that's a little overstated. This is definitely the kind of hair on fire issue of the week. But we're going to have another couple dozen of these before the election.

And the other thing with Tester; he's not a fresh face. He's the elder statesman of Montana politics. He's a guy who's been around the longest, and what that means practically is that people have very well entrenched views on him. And once you have those kinds of well entrenched views it's just harder for some new piece of information to change that. So I don't think this is the kind of game changer that some people are talking about. But it's the kind of vote that Tester probably doesn't want to make a habit of.

SM: Well Chuck, speaking of Tester's Republican opponents, two of the six men who are running against him Russell Fagg and Matt Rosendale released their latest campaign finance reports this week, and the numbers are impressive enough for the challengers.

Chuck Johnson: Yes Sally, Russell Fagg released his first report and he said he raised about $615,000, which is a nice total for your first report. Of that, about 80 percent was from Montana. And he criticized Senator Tester for having 81 percent of his donors from out of state. Reporters have always written a lot of stories about the percentage of out-of-state donations that go to our incumbent senators and congressmen, and it doesn't really matter. I think it all spends the same. But nonetheless it was a pretty impressive showing that Rosendale reported a grand total of $760,000 raised for his entire campaign, including $330,000 for the past quarter. We'll get the final reports on the 31st. That's when they're due, so we'll be able to do really, a comparison with every candidate. But, for Fagg, that's an impressive first quarter.

SM: It probably indicates that he may be a stronger candidate than people have thought up to this point. What do you think, Chuck?

CJ: I think so. He's got a lot of strong supporters. He's been endorsed by former Governors Racicot, Stevens, and the late Judy Martz, and former Congressman Rick Hill and Denny Rehberg. So, that's the heart of the Republican Party establishment. And he also is from Billings; and something like one out of every seven Republican primary voters are from Billings, so that could be a sign in his favor too.

SM: And of course, both of these candidates are still far short of what the incumbent, Senator Tester, has raised, but that's no surprise to anyone, the incumbent always has the fundraising advantage.

CJ: Correct. Tester has raised about $7.8 million so far and has — a real number that significant is the cash on hand, the ending fund balance — and he has about $5.3 million in the bank. Fagg has about $468,000 in the bank. And I did not get a cash on hand total for Rosendale.

SM: There was a gathering in the small town of Paradise last weekend that featured the anti-government Cliven Bundy family of Nevada. And there were two sympathetic state legislators at that gathering. Senator Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls, and Representative Theresa Manzella of Hamilton. And Rob, this is part of a movement to turn federal land over to state and local control.

RS: Right. And Jennifer Fielder is, I would say, the leading figure in that certainly, in the Legislature here, and here in Montana in recent years, but I think one of the things that we're perhaps seeing is that this movement has expanded a bit. The incidents that the Bundy's have been involved in of course generated a huge amount of media attention, and there's a piece of the populist Trump phenomenon that really dovetails with what we heard at this meeting earlier this week.

Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder speaking during the Cliven Bundy event in Paradise, MT, January 20, 2018.
Credit Nicky Ouellet
Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder speaking during the Cliven Bundy event in Paradise, MT, January 20, 2018.

SM: The whole notion of government being the enemy. Well here's what Cliven Bundy's son Ryan told the mostly supportive crowd.

"Governments do not give us our rights. Our rights come from God and they are exist prior to the existence of any government. Many want to call us anti-government. That is not true. We are very in favor of a government that operates properly according to these principles which I just spoke."

SM: Well they may not be anti-government in the generic sense Chuck, but they're definitely anti federal government.

CJ: That's right Sally. The whole Sagebrush Rebellion movement goes back to the 1970s with the Carter administration and new looks at Wilderness and wilderness area studies. And it continued. Really it reached a peak too in the Clinton administration when his Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt tried to raise the grazing fees that ranchers pay to graze their livestock on federal lands. And there was something of a rebellion over that, and it died a quick death. And Babbitt was armed with statistics showing that, you know, the fees were far lower at present than ranchers were paying for grazing fees from other ranch owners. So, it's been an ongoing battle. It doesn't seem to get solved. Critics say the ultimate goal they have is for the federal government to turn over these lands to state and local governments.

SM: Something state and local governments are horrified by.

Ryan Bundy speaking in Paradise, MT, January 20, 2018.
Credit Nicky Ouellet
Ryan Bundy speaking in Paradise, MT, January 20, 2018.

CJ: Well they are horrified because they don't begin to have the kind of budgets to manage Forest Service and BLM lands. And I think the fear is that if that were to ever happen that they would be forced to sell a bunch of these lands because they couldn't afford to maintain them or manage them, and they would be bought by the highest bidder. You know, probably other ranchers or mineral and oil and gas companies looking for exploration. So, it's a battle that doesn't seem to find an end. There's certainly support in Montana with Senator Fielder and some of her colleagues for doing that, although I don't see that as a very likely outcome.

RS: You know, one thing that strikes me about the clip you played, Sally, is just that that really is kind of a paraphrase of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence drawing on the work of John Locke. This idea that we have natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as Bundy says. That idea suggests that those rights predate government it's not because the government gives us those rights. And so one of the key outgrowths of that is that the role of government is simply to protect those rights. And what they are saying is that the U.S. government has not only failed to protect our natural rights but has taken an active role in depriving us of them on this federal land issue. And so, that starting point is a central idea in the history of American political thought.

The big problem though, as I see it, is that the Bundys and their followers present all this as though their conclusions are obvious and that anyone reading the Constitution would obviously have to reach the same endpoint that they do. And that's just not true. They are presenting an interpretation of the Constitution and the Declaration. And while I can kind of understand how they tried to connect the dots, there are major objections to all of this, and all of the points they make in their interpretation of these documents. It's well outside the mainstream, and I would say even outside the mainstream of conservative constitutional interpretation. But again, I think that the remarkable thing here is that it does seem to be gaining some traction, right. Maybe, as Chuck suggests, not enough to really get to the place where they'd like to see the public land discussion go. But clearly it is on an uptick.

SM: Several thousand people also turned out last weekend for women's marches across the state. And two of the Democratic candidates for the U.S. House seat, Jared Pettinato and Kathleen Williams attended the Missoula march.

And Rob, Williams sent out a press release this week that has the iconic photo of a Montana politician running for national office: standing in a field in hunter orange, gun on shoulder. But I think this is the first time in Montana it's a woman holding that gun.

RS: Right. All the boys are out there with their guns, but the women haven't necessarily done that. Classic Montana look.

SM: An effective look.

A photo sent out by Kathleen Williams' campaign, Jan 25, 2018.
Credit Kathleen Williams for Montana
A photo sent out by Kathleen Williams' campaign, Jan 25, 2018.

RS: Yeah, it's a classic Montana look and one that's effective. I mean, one of the things that you try to do with these kinds of images and advertising, it's all about proximity to the voters. And a lot of Montanans hunt or are engaged in outdoor activities in one way or another, and it's a good way of reminding Montana voters, or introducing herself to Montana voters as someone who is very much like them.

SM: Sure caught my eye. Did it catch yours Chuck?

CJ: Well it did. And don't forget she had her, looks like a Labrador retriever, with her as she is toting a shotgun to go duck hunting.

RS: The classic Montana dog.

SM: There was no Subaru in the background, but that's probably the next press release, and it will likely not be the only gun photo of the 2018 campaign.

Well, you've been listening to Campaign Beat, our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I have been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. And guys, I'll talk to you next week, hopefully sounding less honky from this cold.

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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