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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Beat: Trump Targets Tester; Ads Turn Negative; Bullock Shifts On Guns

"Campaign Beat," MTPR's weekly political analysis program is hosted by MTPR's Sally Mauk, with UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and former Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Listen Fridays between 6:30 and 7 p.m., or Sunday at 11 a.m.
"Campaign Beat," MTPR's weekly political analysis program is hosted by MTPR's Sally Mauk, with UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and former Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Listen Fridays between 6:30 and 7 p.m., or Sunday at 11 a.m.

Trump rallies in Montana again hoping to defeat Jon Tester's bid for re-election — and it's personal. New campaign ads in the House and Senate races stretch the truth. And Governor Bullock shifts position on guns as he ponders a run for president. These stories and more tonight on "Campaign Beat," MTPR's weekly political analysis program.

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 guys welcome back to the program. Hope everybody had a good summer.

Rob, President Trump held his second rally in as many months in Montana this week and really went after Senator Jon Tester, who he hopes loses his seat this fall. But for Trump, besides wanting the Senate to remain in Republican hands this is personal with Tester.

Rob Saldin: Absolutely Sally. I mean, just to take one step back before we get into that. I mean big picture, almost everything's gone right for Jon Tester. There's a Republican in the White House and we know that the party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in the midterm election. It would be a lot tougher environment for Tester if Hillary Clinton was president. Tester also drew the third-string opponent for the Republicans after Ryan Zinke who was tapped for Interior and Attorney General Fox declined to run. So a lot has gone right for Tester.

But the one thing that has not gone according to script is that Trump really has it out for Tester and it seems as though that all goes back to the Ronny Jackson incident. That was Trump's nominee for V.A. secretary that he blames Tester, I think quite personally, for bringing him down, bringing down that nomination. And I mean you think about it, this is the second presidential visit we've had in Montana just in two months -- a presidential visit. These things don't happen very often in Montana. And we've had two of them. And I don't know that it's clear that this one will be the last before the election.

SM: We'll see how long the grudge lasts I guess. But Trump's rallies, Rob, fire up his loyal base, there's no question, but will that be enough for Matt Rosendale to defeat Tester?

RS: Well it sure helps. And this was quite clearly a rally for Matt Rosendale. It wasn't purely a Trump rally and it wasn't a rally for Republicans in Montana in general. This was very explicitly a Matt Rosendale rally to support his candidacy. Trump spoke for a little bit then brought Rosendale out and then Trump went back and finished the show. But in a lot of ways this was as much an anti-Tester rally as it was a Matt Rosendale rally. And I do think that really hurts. Jon Tester absolutely need some Trump voters, and to the extent that these presidential visits remind people that Trump doesn't like Tester and that he's supporting Matt Rosendale, I mean that can't help but give Matt Rosendale some help in this campaign.

SM: Trump briefly mentioned incumbent Congressman Greg Gianforte, calling him "a great fighter for Montana."

"I'll tell you what, this man has fought in more ways than one for your state. Greg Gianforte, he is a fighter and a winner. He's a winner," Trump said.

SM: And this is an allusion to Gianforte's assault up a reporter in his last election. And Rob obviously Trump thinks that something worth praise.

RS: Yeah. And the crowd did too. You know Gianforte at the time denied it and tried to initially pin it on the reporter as something that the reporter instigated. He later pled guilty to it. But it was never totally clear at the time whether that actually hurt Gianforte. And now clearly Trump is using that as something to praise him for.

SM: And it goes along with, of course, Trump's disdain of the press in general.

And Chuck, even though Montana Senate race is getting lots of national attention, it is the House that Democrats have the most chance to take over. And Montana's House race between incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Kathleen Williams appears to be tightening, though Gianforte is still leading and pouring tons of money into the race. Should he be worried?

Chuck Johnson: That's a good question Sally. A poll that came out in late June actually showed Kathleen Williams leading him, I think by 36 to 30. I haven't seen any polling since but this could be a tight race. It's certainly one that's drawing attention in the state. And both of them are doing their campaigns. Kathleen Williams is traveling around the state a lot I see a lot of stories about her and Gianforte, I don't see many stories, but he's obviously traveling around too.

SM: Kathleen Williams early campaign ads were all kind of warm and fuzzy and even humorous.But her latest ad goes on the attack.

"I'm Kathleen Williamson I approve this message."

Announcer: "A plan that threatens Social Security. A budget that ends Medicare as we know it. Congressman Greg Gianforte voted for them both because he said he believes Montanans should work, not retire."

Gianforte: "How old was Noah when he built the arc? 600. He wasn't like, cashing Social Security checks. So I think we have an obligation to work. "

Announcer: "He didn't only say that, he voted that way.We can't afford to let a self-interested millionaire like Greg Gianforte threaten our economic security."

SM: This ad, Chuck, pulls no punches on two issues that a lot of Democrats, not just Williams, are running on, and that is protecting Medicare and Social Security from cuts.

CJ: That's correct. The quote about Noah being 600 years old. That was from 2015 I might add. So it wasn't related to the issues this time, but I wasn't able to find any statements particularly where Gianforte said he would support cutting Social Security and Medicare. I think it's imputing that his support of the balanced budget amendment and the Ryan budget indicates that he would, although on his website Gianforte says he will fight to protect and secure Social Security and Medicare and stop Washington politicians from cutting the retirement benefits that Montana seniors have earned. I don't see a direct statement or a vote where directly would do that. The Democrats are imputing that those two votes could lead to that.

SM: Well meanwhile Gianforte is trying to paint Kathleen Williams as a Pelosi Democrat.

"I'm Greg Gianforte and I approve this message."

Announcer: "The liberal resistance is going too far. Now these radicals want to abolish the law enforcement agency that deports criminal illegal aliens. Kathleen Williams is their candidate for Congress. So liberal Williams would with only Pelosi for open borders and amnesty. So extreme Williams supports the Iranian nuclear deal that gave billions to the leading funder of terrorism. Kathleen Williams is a risk we can't take."

SM: And the immigration fears, Chuck are straight out of the Trump playbook.

CJ: No question. And this ad has got a lot of falsehoods as well. Williams has supported ICE and she supports tracking down drug and human trafficking, that sort of thing. Also she has said she will not support the election of Nancy Pelosi as speaker if she is elected. So she's not a shill for Pelosi. So I think there's falsehoods in both of these ads.

SM: Back to the Senate race Rob. Senator Tester continues to hammer home his ability to work with Trump, especially on veterans issues. And here's part of an ad he's currently running.

News announcer: "President Trump has signed into law a sweeping change in how American veterans receive health care."

Trump: "So it's now my great honor to sign the V.A. mission act."

News announcer: "Montana Senator Jon Tester worked with Republicans to write this bill."

Tester: "This shows what happens when we put politics aside and work together to make sure the V.A. can provide the best possible care and benefits for Montana's veterans."

SM: This ad is cleverly done I think.

RS: Yeah sure, and we get the sense here again, you know, this is the kind of campaign that Tester wanted to run. Demonstrating how he works across the aisle and specifically how he's able to effectively work with Trump. His very first ad of the campaign was very similar in a lot of ways. The difficulty for him of course is that it's become a lot more awkward to make some of those claims because Trump goes around mocking him for it. He did that at the Billings rally. He says, look, Tester makes it seem like we're best friends. But the problem is he goes back to Washington, he is a creature of the swamp and votes like Pelosi. That has definitely complicated the Tester playbook.

SM: Tester's Republican challenger Matt Rosendale recently ran an ad supporting the Second Amendment.

Rosendale: "There's two ways folks look at gun rights. Some folks like me shoot straight, support the Second Amendment, no apologies. Others like Jon Tester don't. Tester opposed Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump's pick. Tester voted 99 percent of the time for Obama's judges including Justice Sotomayor. Jon voted for her. When it comes our gun rights. I'll always side with you. I'm Matt Rosendale and I approve this message."

SM: The only problem with this ad Rob, is that Mr. Rosendale initially was standing in front of a billboard citing Article 2 of the Constitution with the right to keep and bear arms underneath it. But article 2 has nothing to do with the Second Amendment. He had to pull that ad.

RS: Right. Article 2 is about the presidency and the executive branch. The second amendment dealing with guns comes at the end of the Constitution in the Bill of Rights. So it's a mistake by the campaign. I'm sure they wish they would have had another set of eyes on this before they put it out there. And it's definitely a little embarrassing, especially for people who always emphasize how much they revere the Constitution and how much by contrast Democrats just don't understand it. I'm not sure how many people would necessarily have noticed it, but it's definitely a little bit of an embarrassment.

That said, I think we also though get in that ad a preview of what we're going to be seeing a lot of. And that is Rosendale pointing to Jon Tester's votes for the U.S. Supreme Court. And this, I would say, is the one other thing that hasn't gone quite right for Tester. I'm sure he would not like to have this vote over Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh, coming up right before the election. That's a little awkward for him. And I think we're going to be seeing a lot of ads like this that say, look, Tester, assuming that he votes against Kavanaugh, which is conventional wisdom, I think we're going to be seeing a lot of this. Look, this guy doesn't support Trump's picks and he doesn't support picks to the Supreme Court who are going to uphold gun rights.

SM: Well speaking of gun rights check. Governor Steve Bullock continues to jaunt around several key presidential primary states exploring the possibility of running for president in 2020. And in the course of doing that he has changed his position on gun rights.

CJ: That's right Sally. Last month he was on CNN with Jake Tapper. I think he was in Iowa or at least near that time and he was asked his position and he said he could support a ban on some semi-automatic assault weapons, which was definitely a reversal of a position that he's had in the Montana Legislature. And he said that would have to be part of a larger look at other things too, other ideas along with it. But then when reporters in Helena met up with him they asked if he would be introducing a bill to that effect in the Montana Legislature, and he said he wasn't sure. So you know, it raised the question, is he saying one thing in Iowa and New Hampshire on national television, another in Montana. Because certainly a ban like that would probably be dead in the water of the Montana Legislature if Republicans continue to have the majorities in both House and Senate.

SM: You know it's hard not to notice that the only thing that has changed in terms of his changing his position is that he's thinking of running for president. I mean, certainly there have been school shootings while he was governor. His own nephew was killed in a school shooting, and so on, and he continued to be consistent about gun rights until he reached the national stage.

CJ: Correct.

SM: That said, Democrats don't appear, Rob and Chuck, to have a clear candidate or a frontrunner for president at this point. So why not? Why not Bullock throwing his hat out there and testing the waters?

CJ: Well I would agree why not. You know I've heard people in Montana, some people say, well who does he think he is? But you know, Jimmy Carter ran as an unknown nationally and got elected as a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976. Bill Clinton in 1992. I mean I guess, why not give it a shot if that's what you've always dreamed of doing.

RS: Well yeah, I mean obviously the odds are heavily against him, but if you don't throw your hat in the ring, you know it's not going to come together. The other thing, I think, that even if he falls short in his bid for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, he would be raising his national profile, and depending on who the nominee ultimately is, you could imagine him potentially being a vice-presidential pick. Probably also a longshot, but again, depending if it's someone from Senator Harris from California or Senator Booker from New Jersey you could imagine that kind of a pairing. And you could also imagine Bullock, if he raises his profile in this way, being a potential pick for attorney general or Interior or Agriculture. So, you know, I don't think there's a big downside for him to throwing his name out there

SM: And he will be looking for a job in 2020.

You've been listening to "Campaign Beat," our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and have been speaking with veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. And guys, it's going to be an interesting campaign season. We will dissect it again next week. Talk to you then.

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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