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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Campaign Beat:' The 'Least Trumpy' Republican, Fundraising Breakdown, Town Hall Pledge

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

Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin unpack how Montana candidates — including the "least Trumpy" Republican — reacted to the State of the Union, parse the latest campaign finance reports, and talk town hall pledges and bikes in wilderness, on this episode of "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.

Rob, reaction to President Trump's State of the Union Address fell along predictable party lines in Montana with Republican Senate hopefuls Matt Rosendale and Troy Downing quickly releasing statements saying if elected they can help Trump do everything he promised.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, totally predictable reactions there. Rosendale and Downing, you know, just couldn't be any more giddy about the prospect of helping Donald Trump drain the swamp. They're very deliberately trying to associate themselves with the president. It's the same message that Greg Gianforte has hung his hat on during the special election campaign, during his months in Congress; and it makes sense. Trump won Montana by over 20 points. He remains popular in the state.

You know, the one thing on the Republican side that caught my eye is the guy who didn't have a reaction. That's Russ Fagg, and that's a little bit interesting. I think he's clearly the least Trumpy of the top-tier Republican Senate candidates; much more in the mold of what we would have considered to be a typical mainstream Republican in the pre-Trump era. He hasn't gone out of his way to attach himself to Trump, and his lack of reaction to the State of the Union Address is the latest example of this.

SM: 'Least Trumpy.' This is a new phrase we're introducing.

Incumbent Democrat Jon Tester though Rob, had a more muted response, but he also pointed out in this video press statement how he is working with Trump:

"I heard a strong message from the president tonight that spoke to Montana's hard working families. I look forward to working with the president on issues around infrastructure, particularly as it applies to rural America.

"I look forward to working with the president on making sure our borders are secure."

SM: And then he went on to list where he felt Trump fell short on issues like agriculture and public lands and so on. But as we've discussed before, Tester is straddling a fine line when it comes to Trump.

RS: Yeah that's a tougher needle to thread for him than it is for the Republicans obviously. But he's been very consistent in saying that he'll work with Trump where he can but will oppose him where he has to. And that makes sense. You know, just politically, he's in no position to be a scorched earth resistance fighter. The reality of being a Democrat in Montana is that Tester needs some votes from people who supported Trump. But he also is a legislator. And the fact of the matter is Donald Trump is president. That's not going to change anytime soon. So as a legislator, Tester wants to make progress on the issues he cares about. You try to do some good where you can. And he has racked up some wins, particularly on veterans issues where he's worked closely with Republicans on the committee that oversees the V.A. He's gotten a lot of things to the president's desk. Trump even highlighted one of those bills in his speech Tuesday night. Now, I suppose there's some risk that he could go too far for his base supporters who might prefer a more hostile, aggressive approach to dealing with Trump. But, you know, as we've talked about it before, I really do think he's in good shape with his base and has some flexibility there.

SM: And Chuck, Senator Tester is also in good shape with this fundraising. The latest campaign finance reports show him with a 10 to 1 fundraising edge over all his Republican challengers. That's a huge margin.

Chuck Johnson: Well he's done the job of an incumbent senator; which is raise money like crazy during the five years before the election. And he's raised about a little over $9 million.

The Republican who's raised the most is Troy Downing, who's raised about $860,000. But of that, $650,000 has come out of his own pocket. So he hasn't done very well raising money from other folks.

Matt Rosendale, who a lot of people think is the Republican favorite, has raised about $600,000 to date.* [Correction: Matt Rosendale has raised $760,000 to date. We regret the error.]

And Russ Fagg has raised about $615,000 so far, including $25,000 from himself. So those are the Republican totals. Rest assured whichever Republican wins the nomination will get a lot of help. I think Republicans still think this is a seat they can win. So, I think a lot of money will pour into the coffers of the nominee after the June primary. But likewise, Tester is a favorite of a lot of Democrats and I think you'll get a lot of national help too from now until November.

SM: The more surprising numbers, Chuck, are in the House race where two of the Democratic challengers John Heenan and Grant Kier are almost keeping pace with the incumbent Greg Gianforte in terms of how much money they've raised to date.

CJ: That is strange. I don't know what happened to Gianforte's fundraising operation. In fairness to him, of course, he ran a major campaign and was elected in a special election in late May. So he didn't have a full year to raise it. But so far he's raised somewhere around but $540,000, which isn't that great for an incumbent congressman.

Heenan leads with about $580,000, although $200,000 is a loan from himself. And Kier has raised $440,000 but no loans from himself. So, if you take out the $200,000, Kier has definitely out-raised Heenan. Although as people say, self loans spend all the same as money raised from others. But it shows that Kier has got a pretty strong campaign, I think.

Then there are three more candidates that are all under $100,000. Kathleen Williams has raised about $73,000. She's a former state representative from Bozeman. Lynda Moss, a former state senator from Billings has raised about $46,000 and Jared Pettinato has raised about $36,000, including $10,000 in a loan from himself. So those are the early totals and they'll certainly pick up after the next report, which will be for this year, 2018.

SM: Still a long ways to go obviously. And Rob, in that House race the Democrat Grant Kier put out a pledge this week that if elected he will hold at least four in person town halls a year; a clear needling of Congressman Greg Gianforte's preference for tele-town halls over town halls where he's actually present, right.

RS: And he actually delivered that pledge to Gianforte's office to allow him the opportunity to sign it himself. I mean, obviously this was basically a publicity stunt. But that's part of running an effective campaign. And I think it works well for Kier at the most basic level. It kept his name in the papers, and building name recognition is absolutely critical for all of these Democratic candidates because none of them are very well known. I think it also is just something that resonates with voters, and it is a little bit of a weak spot for Gianforte who's been reluctant to hold normal town hall sessions.

Now the reality of the town hall situation is that there is, I think, a very obvious reason why Gianforte isn't eager to do these town halls. Since Trump's election, Gianforte has to have seen what's happened to Republicans who do go out there and hold town halls. On many occasions these things have been far from the kind of noble textbook version of democratic discourse and an open exchange of ideas. Quite the opposite. A lot of these town halls across the country have essentially been well orchestrated efforts on the part of some of the attendees to shout down and basically humiliate the member of Congress. So why put yourself in that kind of a situation? It might be better to take the hit on not facing your voters than to have a debacle like we've seen elsewhere.

You know one final word on this. This is something that Republicans are feeling the heat on now, but back in 2009 at the peak of the health care reform debate, Democrats were the ones taking the arrows on this one. During that August recess Democrats held town halls, they got yelled at screamed at, embarrassed. It was a key moment in the Tea Party movement. Well, now Gianforte and the Republicans are in that position.

SM: Gianforte also caught some flak this week over his flip flop on allowing bicycles in Wilderness areas; something he voted for earlier but now says he's against. And flip flops, whatever the good reason for them may be, are never a good look.

RS: Yeah, it's a 180. And obviously that's something you'd rather avoid. You voted for it in committee. Now he says if it comes to the House floor he's going to vote against it. You know I think it wouldn't be very remarkable if a member of Congress from say Rhode Island or something wavered on his Wilderness position. But this is an issue that's high profile, hotly contested here in Montana. And so it is a bit surprising. And then within this policy area, the debate over bikes, this didn't just spring up out of nowhere. This has been a pretty prominent feature in Wilderness debates for a number of years. So, all that is to say it's not unreasonable to expect a congressman from Montana to be up to speed on this issue, or at the very least to have a staffer who's on top of it. But that said, you know, Gianforte's only been back there for several months. There's a lot of issues that you have to take votes on. You can't be an expert on everything, and there is something in his explanation that I found quite refreshing. He basically said, 'look, I got it wrong the first time. New information has come to light. Now that we've had time to study the thing more closely, I can't support it any more.' I think a lot of politicians wouldn't be as straightforward, and there should be room for people to change their minds as they learn more about an issue.

SM: Chuck, there's a state Senate race in Missoula that got interesting this week when former University of Montana grizzly football star Chase Reynolds announced he was going to run as a Republican against incumbent Democrat Diane Sands.

CJ: Well it sure did Sally. Chase Reynolds — for those who don't follow grizzly football — was kind of the Little Engine That Could. A star football player from Drummond Montana who I think might have even been a walk-on, and he broke all kinds of records as a running back for the Grizzlies and then played pro football for five or six years, and very well known to Grizzly fans. What we don't know is what kind of a politician he is. We know he's a good runner. And he's up against Diane Sands, who's a very experienced politician. She was in the House for a term in the '90s and for five years, six years and the first part of this century, and then in the Senate the last four years. And Diane Sands is very active in women's groups and has helped elect a number of other women. So, we don't really know, but she barely squeaked by her last race for the Senate against a Missoula Republican representative named Dick Haines who was also on the city council there. So a close race, and who knows. I mean, other sports stars nationally have gone on to political careers. Probably one of the most prominent was Bill Bradley, an NBA basketball player who was a senator from New Jersey. Jim Bunning a pitcher for the Phillies and the Tigers who was a senator from Kentucky. Gerald Ford was an All-American football player at Michigan, member of Congress, was vice president, president, any number of them. So you don't know. You don't know what Chase Reynolds stands for politically. And that should be one of the races everyone will be watching with interest.

SM: He has so far been vague about his stand on issues, other than he wants to see more affordable housing in Missoula and he wants to help, "bring family style values back to his home state." But that's a vague notion, I'm not quite sure what he stands for at this point.

CJ: That's correct. And I'm sure the voters of the district will be asking him about that when he goes around to the doors as they'll be asking Diane Sands similar questions.

SM: Well, we'll keep an eye on that race.

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. Have a great weekend guys. I'll talk to you next week.

[Correction: We've updated the transcript to correct Matt Rosendale's fundraising numbers. He's raised $760,000 to date, not $600,000. We regret the error.]

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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