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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Campaign Beat:' Congressional Races Tighten; Kavanaugh Confirmation Wild Card?

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

Montana's House and Senate races are tightening, giving hope to the challengers; new ads trumpet Trump support and guns; and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination process could be a wild-card in the congressional contests. Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin analyse this week's campaign news 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, a CBS News poll shows Montana's Senate races virtually a toss-up, with incumbent Jon Tester only two points ahead of challenger Matt Rosendale. And there are no doubt many factors leading to the race tightening, including I would guess, President Trumps two visits to Montana to stump for Rosendale.

Rob Saldin: Well sure yeah. Matt Rosendale is excited to have that connection to Trump driven home every chance he can get. The big headline with this poll is that it's close, and that's not particularly surprising, but it has to be encouraging to the challenger Matt Rosendale.

You know my usual caveat, which I'll repeat, is that this is just one poll and we should never take a single poll as definitive. I'd also note that this poll has a 5.2 percent margin of error. You know that's pretty high. Oftentimes you see that figure somewhere more between 3 percent and 4 percent. So all that is to say, it's nice to have this poll but it we'll have a better sense of where things stand once we get more polling data in the coming weeks.

You know a couple of things, Sally, though that stood out to me. You know one: Tester and President Trump have nearly identical favorability ratings. Trump is at 54 percent favorable while Tester is at 53. And they're both sitting at 47 percent unfavorable. And in a related point you know, this poll suggests that there are quite a few people who apparently have a favorable view of Tester but who aren't necessarily going to vote for him. There's a seven point gulf between those figures and I would think that this should concern the Tester camp a bit. One of his strengths as a candidate is his authenticity, his likability. Well, this poll raises the question of whether there's a limit in terms of how far that's going to take him. And this poll suggests that there's a significant slice of Montana voters who may like Tester but perhaps like Trump more.

SM: Here's a new ad from Matt Rosendale going after Tester for not supporting Trump.

Matt Rosendale: "Jon Tester talks about the handful of times he votes for President Trump, but he won't tell you about the big votes. Tester votes against President Trump's politics 75 percent of the time. Against Trump's tax cuts. Against ending sanctuary cities. And even against Trump's Supreme Court nominee. Montana needs a senator who stands with President Trump on the big stuff, And doesn't brag about the little stuff. I'm Matt Rosendale and I approve this message."

SM: And Tester responded to this, Rob, with his own ad pointing out his work with Trump on veterans issues. But the fact is, as you were just saying, if Trump's your guy, Rosendale is the one who's most all-in with that.

RS: Yeah, yeah, no doubt about it. Tester, he's not going to be able to keep up if it's all about who's closest to Trump. You know, I think it's probably worth saying that the Rosendale strategy here, I do hear some people saying, 'well you know maybe he's taking it too far it could backfire on him.' But this is all quite clearly a deliberate strategy on the part of the Rosendale campaign. And it follows in Greg Gianforte's footsteps when he pivoted away from his standoffish approach to Trump back in the 2016 governor's race, and then just did a 180 to fully embrace Trump in last year's special election for Congress. And so Rosendale is following that pattern. This isn't something he stumbled into by accident, and there's a clear logic to it. I think Gianforte basically failed in his bid for governor not because he failed to win over enough crossover Democrats or something like that, but because he failed to win over enough Trump voters. Well Rosendale is in a similar position here. He doesn't need to get a bunch of support from Democratic voters, he just needs to do well with Trump voters.

SM: Chuck, the Rosendale ad also references Tester's vote against Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. And Tester has yet to say how he's going to vote on the latest nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And of course there's a lot of controversy roiling around that nomination, but that nomination and Tester's silence or whatever vote he ends up coming out with, that could sway some votes here in Montana in the Senate race.

Chuck Johnson: I suppose. It's hard to say Sally. He has not stated a position on it. To my knowledge he hasn't met with Kavanaugh and there's been a debate over that. You know, their schedules haven't coincided. I suspect he'll vote against him but he's not talked at all about the allegations about Kavanaugh — that he sexually assaulted a young woman when he was in high school at a party in a private house. I don't know if that's strategic on Tester's part. He's not on the Judiciary Committee. He won't be a part of the hearing coming up where both Kavanaugh and the woman will be testifying. So I don't know. I think he's strategically decided to just stay mum about it, and whether that will affect his race I don't know. A lot of his supporters are women so I'm a little surprised he hasn't talked about it.

SM: And of course there are senators who aren't on the Judiciary Committee who have spoken out about it at this point.

Rob, one of Rosendale's attack strategies is to paint Tester as part of the D.C. swamp. And here's a new Tester ad punching back on that.

Narrator: "Out of State Super PACs have arrived lying about Jon Tester. The fact is, Jon's holding Washington accountable every day. Fighting to ban members of Congress from becoming lobbyists to end automatic pay raises for Congress. And Jon returned over $3 million from his office budget to the Treasury. Matt Rosendale tell your East Coast cronies to go home because Montanans value the truth."

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

SM: Rob, I'm not sure how much ads like this really work because you're drawing attention to the fact that politicians take money they shouldn't and that's been the critique of Tester.

RS: Well, I do think he needs to try to push back on that in some way. I'm not sure that this is the most persuasive ad or necessarily the best way to push back against it. But he does have to do something, because I think what the Republican outside groups and what Rosendale is onto here is a threat to Tester. It's really going after Tester, his reputation as an authentic Montanan, which is just absolutely key to his presentation of himself to voters. I mean they're saying that, you know, this guy claims to be a real Montanan but he's become part of the D.C. swamp and you can see it in the house he owns back in Washington D.C. that's very expensive, and you can see it in his claims from 2006 that he's not going to take lobbyist money and now he is. So this is something that Tester can't just let pass. Much of his campaign has been based around — and his political career for that matter — has been based around showing that he's one of us; and Republicans are trying to poke holes in that. So he does have to respond in one way or another and I imagine that we'll see more ads like this trying to push back aggressively against these charges.

SM: And Chuck, the Cook Political Report has downgraded Montana's House race from 'Likely Republican' to 'Leaning Republican.'And that has to give some hope to the challenger Kathleen Williams.

CJ: I think it will help her, Sally. It will send a message to fundraising groups and funders in Washington and New York and L.A. and San Francisco and other big funding centers that she has a chance to win. And I don't think we've seen this in past congressional races where the Democrats have been upgraded like that. So that sends a good message and she should reap some benefits from that financially. And then of course, last week the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee moved her to their 'Red to Blue' list, which is the same thing. It will give her notice among Democratic funders that she's a candidate who can win.

In past House elections over the last decade or so, the Democratic Congressional Committee has sort of been absent in the Montana congressional race, not helped the Democratic candidates at all really except when it was too late to do much good. So this is probably good news for Williams.

SM: Well, Williams has a new ad attacking Greg Gianforte for being unresponsive to his constituents.

Speaker 1: "I wrote Greg Gianforte asking him to support Social Security."

Speaker 2: "I emailed Gianforte about affordable health care."

Speaker 3: "I tried to get Greg Gianforte to hold a public hearing about public lands."

Speaker 4: "I went to a Gianforte meeting to express my opinion ..."

Speaker 2: "I got no real answer."

Speaker 3: "All I got was a form letter."

Speaker 1: "Just a form letter."

Speaker 4: "I got kicked out of the meeting."

Speaker 1: "He won't meet with the public."

Speaker 3: "We deserve better."

Speaker 1: "He doesn't listen."

Speaker 4: "We deserve better."

Kathleen Williams: "I'm Kathleen Williams and I approve this message."

SM: And this ad, Chuck, features real Montanans and I think it's an effective ad both in how it looks and in the content.

CJ: Yeah there is a retired doctor, a retired professor, a writer, and a nutritionist, and they kind of look like everyday Montanans. They're all middle age or older and they certainly raise some of the main concerns that critics of Greg Gianforte have raised: that he doesn't meet with people, he doesn't have town hall meetings, he doesn't have public hearings. I think it's an effective ad. It's real people making the allegation, not Kathleen Williams. And I think it highlights the concerns that we've been hearing about the past year.

SM: Rob we spoke earlier about how the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh might impact the Senate race, but fired up women unhappy with the Court nominating process could also help Williams in this House race.

RS: Yeah, it totally could Sally. But I guess the thing that stands out to me more than anything is just how highly volatile and unpredictable the situation has become. I mean we've gone over the course of a week from thinking that this thing was in the bag, it was a done deal for Kavanaugh, to now it being totally up in the air and people close to Kavanaugh floating evil twin theories of an alternative suspect. And we have a lot farther to go. It is totally something that could extend the engagement of women that we've seen over the course of the last couple of years with the marches and 'me too.' But I think it's also the case that it's hard to see how this thing turns out no matter whether Kavanagh's gets through or he doesn't. Where there are a lot of people who are really profoundly upset. And so, if he doesn't get through, that could also fire up the Republican base. But I think right now it's just so unpredictable it's hard to know with any certainty. And I would say it's also possible that if this thing gets ramped-up here shortly, that we've still got such a long time before the election that there's a potential that this could kind of be old news the way the news cycles change so quickly. It's just really unpredictable at this point what the political ramifications are going to be.

SM: Chuck, Gianforte has a new ad accusing Kathleen Williams of wanting to take your guns away.

Speaker 1: "In rural Montana our courageous law enforcement officers can't always answer the call in the nick of time. That's why I pack a pistol. And that's why I can't vote for Kathleen Williams. Williams is F-rated by the NRA because she'll take away our rights to self defense.

"Greg Gianforte is A-rated by the NRA and he'll always protect our Second Amendment. Greg Gianforte is on Montana's side."

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

SM: The NRA ratings in this ad are accurate Chuck, but not much else.

CJ: No. Kathleen Williams has never said she'd take away people's right to defend themselves. She's a hunter herself, long-time hunter. She has supported universal background checks in response to some of the school shootings earlier this year. But she's never said she would take away people's right to hunt. Part of the ad that's good is it shows a young woman, from Emigrant, out in the country, and it's effective to that point. And then it shows her hiking with Gianforte. But certainly not true that Williams wants to take people's gun rights away.

SM: Although, Williams has supported some limits on assault weapons. The pro-gun people see that as a slippery slope.

CJ: Yeah she has supported universal background checks and a ban of semi assault weapons. But I don't know how many hunters use semi assault weapons.

SM: It's an effective ad though, overall, I think.

CJ: Well it is. It's a woman out in the woods by herself, really, and she's talking about how law enforcement can't always get there when there's trouble and that's why she carries a pistol. And she points to the pistol on her belt. I think it's a pretty effective ad visually. I don't think that some of the facts are quite right.

SM: Rob, Donald Trump Jr. will be back in Montana this coming week to stump for Matt Rosendale, and he's expected to go after Senator Tester for not having a hunting license the last six years. And Don Jr., of course, is a hunter himself and likes to brag about that fact.

RS: Yeah, it's more in this effort by Republicans to chip away at Tester's presentation of himself as one of us as a real, authentic Montanan. You know this is something that I think for Rosendale may be particularly important, just because he's getting attacked for his Maryland roots. Montana is a place where being authentic matters. It matters a lot more than it does in other places. I think we can expect it to be a feature of this campaign for the last weeks that we have up until election day.

SM: I expect the ads and attacks to get nastier as the races get closer, and that's one of the distressing givens of the latter days of a campaign season.

You've been listening to "Campaign Beat," our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with the University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Happy autumn guys and I'll talk to you 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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