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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Campaign Beat:' Fagg Veers Right; Kier Courts Women; Tester Counts On Vets

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

General Flynn endorses Troy Downing in the Republican Senate primary, but skips his visit to Montana. While Sen. Tester is counting on the vet vote, Republican Russ Fagg veers to the right. Republican Matt Rosendale is all in with Trump, while Democrat Grant Kier courts the women's vote.

Join Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin as they analyze these stories and more, 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, disgraced General Mike Flynn canceled a trip to Montana, where he was supposed to campaign for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Troy Downing. And Flynn cited a family emergency as the reason he had to cancel, but he did post a video praising Downing and criticizing Senator Jon Tester.

Rob Saldin: That's right Sally. Yeah, it's a blow for the Downing campaign. I think it quite possibly would have been a pretty lively event. Flynn is the guy, if you remember the 2016 Republican National Convention, he was the one who led the hall in that famous — or infamous, depending on how you look at it — "lock her up" chant in reference to Hillary Clinton. So yeah, he canceled. He says it was because of a family emergency. I guess the one thing that Downing did get out of this is a formal endorsement. That's no big surprise. He was already slated to come out here and campaign for him. So he does get that but he doesn't get the big event that would have presumably helped him raise money, generate some headlines, fire up the base, all of those things.

SM: And in the video, Downing criticized Senator Tester for, again, his allegations about the White House doctor Ronny Jackson who was up to be the head of the V.A. and then withdrew his name from being nominated for that position, in part because of what had been released by Senator Tester. And Downing went after Tester for that again, hammering him on that.

RS: Yeah. Exact same talking points that we saw from Trump last week and showing up in some of these ads that have been attacking Tester for his role in that.

SM: Well, Tester has a new campaign ad featuring a diverse crowd of Montana veterans singing his praises.

Tester ad: "Veterans across Montana are standing up for Jon Tester because Jon is fighting every day for the care of Montana veterans. Jon's fighting for accountability at the VA, for more doctors and nurses at V.A. hospitals, giving veterans the choice of a local doctor. When the VA can't meet our needs, we stand with Jon as he takes on anyone back in Washington for better care for us veterans across our state. Now Jon's got our back."

"I'm Jon Tester and I approve this message."

SM: And this ad has a very authentic look and tone, Rob, and that's his strength I think.

RS: Yeah, for sure. I mean it's clearly a response to the heat he took last week over his role in bringing down Trump's nominee for the VA secretary. That whole thing escalated quickly. But it seems to me that the issue is on its way towards winding down a bit. There are of course still some ads running on TV attacking Tester. There was a Mike Flynn video that we just talked about. But the president, at least, certainly seems to have moved on. I think that has to be a relief to Tester.

You know, all of this had to be a little bit disconcerting to Tester because all of a sudden it looked like one of his key strengths — his work on veterans issues — seemed to get flipped into something that was potentially going to be a liability. But now as a little more time has passed there's no new information that's come to light. So it's all kind of rehash of what we already knew. And you know, we kind of mentioned this in passing a week or two ago. But the one silver lining for Tester in all of this is that it does remind people that one of his core areas of engagement is on veterans issues. And as a general matter, putting this whole controversy aside over Jackson, you know, that's unquestionably a very good thing in Montana. We have one of the very highest percentages of veterans in the entire country. And there is a reason why Tester has chosen to devote so much of his time and energy to this issue. It resonates in a real way here in Montana, and I think this ad is a good way of again, driving that point home in a way that's helpful to Tester.

SM: Chuck, Republican Senate candidate Russ Fagg continues to focus his attacks on fellow Republican Matt Rosendale in this new ad.

Fagg ad: "I'm Judge Russ Fagg and I approve this message."

Fagg ad: "As a former prosecutor and state district court judge for 22 years, Judge Russ Fagg has made the tough decisions to protect our families. That's why Russ Fagg supports the death penalty for illegal aliens that murder, because right and wrong is black and white. Matt Rosendale? Rosendale opposes the death penalty. Worse, Rosendale says it's time to get rid of it. Matt Rosendale, wrong from Montana."

SM: And as you mentioned last week Chuck, Russ Fagg continues to move away from his moderate roots in this primary campaign.

Chuck Johnson: Yes Sally, that's true. I felt going into the race that Russ Fagg's biggest asset was his judicial temperament, his experience as a judge. And in the last two ads we've seen someone really kind of moving far, far to the right in an effort to go after Matt Rosendale. And in this ad he's kind of become the hanging judge, you know, hanging illegal aliens who murder. I don't know that we've had a one of those in Montana, but I may be mistaken. The ominous tone, the music, the drumbeat, the "black and white."

And then, Rosendale's position on the death penalty follows that of his church. He's a devout Catholic, and he's one of the few legislators I knew who was Catholic and opposed both the death penalty and abortion on the right to life grounds. So Rosendale was being consistent with what he's done as a legislator. I just have found the Fagg ads kind of haunting and kind of, in some ways, kind of beneath Russ Fagg.

SM: Meanwhile, there is a new pro-Rosendale ad by a group called the Club for Growth Action.

Rosendale ad: "Donald Trump is not your typical politician. Matt Rosendale isn't either. They aren't in it for the money. Rosendale rejected a state pay raise. He's the only statewide official who turned it down. Send a Trump Republican to the Senate: Matt Rosendale."

SM: And Chuck, I don't think Rosendale supporters can say he's a Trump Republican often enough.

CJ: No, that seems to be the mantra, and you know, they're doubling down on Donald Trump in this ad, the club for growth, which is a conservative Republican group that's all-in with Trump. You know, I would say this ad probably helps Rosendale. They're spending a lot of money on it and he's definitely embracing Trump all he can. So I guess it works for him.

SM: Rob, there's a new poll conducted by the University of Montana that shows widespread support for protecting Wilderness Study Areas. But these are areas Congressman Greg Gianforte would like to open up for possible development. And this could be, what do you think, a problematic issue for him in the campaign to keep his seat.

RS: Potentially so. Gianforte has a bill that would release a lot of these Wilderness Study Areas and Daines has a companion piece in the Senate. This new poll suggests that those bills are quite unpopular. You know, even among Republicans these are not popular bills. And you know, the one thing I think that's a bit interesting about that is it just begs the question, well if the stuff is so unpopular, then why are Gianforte and Daines pushing it? And their answer more or less is that the poll was rigged, that it's not really a true reflection of public opinion. But you know, in looking at the poll questions, it seems to me to be a totally above board and reasonable way to ask those questions. And it's also in keeping with the general attitudes that we've seen over time about public lands.

And so you know, one thing I suspect that's really going on here is — to get a little political science about it — is a phenomenon that one of the greats Richard Fenno highlighted decades ago. And his key insight is that when members of Congress look at their constituency, they don't weigh everyone equal. Right? So you do have all of your constituents in Montana, but they are also concerned about, well who are the people who are actually going to vote for me. They matter more than just a randomly selected Montanan. And then, who are going to be the people who actually donate money to me and work to help them get me re-elected. Right? And those people matter more than the people who will just vote for you in the general election. And then, who's my real inner circle who's going to be there in the trenches with me. Right? This is your friends, your close family members, close advisers. Those people matter more than the people who merely donate, right? And so as you get into these closer and closer circles to the candidates, those people's views matter a lot more. And so this is just one way of understanding why politicians like Gianforte or Daines in this case might occasionally take these positions that seem bizarrely out of step with public opinion. Well, if the people closest to them and their biggest supporters want something and they're passionate enough about it, that's going to carry weight.

SM: And they're the ones who vote as well.

RS: Well, right. And yeah, they're the ones who vote, they're the ones who are out there knocking on doors and giving money and all of this. And there's also the intensity issue. If the people who really want these Wilderness Study Areas released are at a 10 on that level, and the general public is kind of at the 5 level, then that matters too.

SM: And don't worry about being too political science-y, that's what we do.

Chuck, on the Democratic side of the House race, Grant Kier has a new ad, and this one targets women voters.

Kier ad: "When I was six months old, my dad left. Strong women made me who I am. The one who raised me. The one I'm married to. And the one we're now raising. In Congress, I'll fight for women by standing up to Trump; fund Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception and cancer screenings; protect a woman's right to choose; and prevent any insurance companies from charging women more than men. I'm Grant Kier and I approve this message because Montana women should be in charge of their own health care decisions."

SM: Chuck, Kier will need a substantial number of women to vote for him to have a chance to win the nomination.

CJ: I think so Sally, but it's also important to remember that women probably make up the majority of the people voting in a Democratic primary. We haven't seen any polling data really that gets into that. But that's been the case in past primaries, and he'll be up against three other men and one woman, Kathleen Williams, in the race, so they're scrambling to find the best way to get some of those women's votes.

And Williams has already run an ad that talked about how [she], I think, as an 8 or 9 year old child had to start helping to take care of her mother who came down with Alzheimer's. So it's a clear appeal to the women's vote by Grant Kier, and a decent one. You know he hits all the issues. He hits Planned Parenthood, he hits pro-choice on the abortion issue, hits the women shouldn't pay more than men for health care with insurance companies and the like. It's a pretty decent ad and it's a good personal story.

SM: And it's interesting, all of Kier's ads are very upbeat. He doesn't attack any of the other candidates. You know, the only person he has really gone after is Congressman Gianforte, which makes sense, but otherwise they're very cheerful kind of ads and tone, don't you think Chuck?

CJ: They are. And that's kind of been his tone in the debates too. I don't think we've seen him be very negative on anything. You know, he's aggressively promoting his own candidacy but he doesn't attack the others that I've seen.

SM: Rob the primary is June 5. But many Montanans will get their ballots in the mail any day now as absentee ballots are being sent out.

RS: That's right. We're going have people voting any moment now and we'll have several weeks of it leading up to the primary day.

SM: I assume we'll be getting saturated with more ads on television as the day gets closer. You can look forward to the robo-calls, and mailers, and pleas for money on the desperate daily basis.

You've been listening to "Campaign Beat," our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk. I have been speaking with the University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Chuck and Rob will be back next week. I will be off and Nicky Ouellet will be filling in for me. And guys, have a great weekend.

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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