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'Campaign Beat:' Trump, Immigration And Health Care The Focus As Election Day Nears

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

A fourth presidential visit to Montana continues a grudge President Trump has with Jon Tester. Libertarians have sometimes influenced the outcome of a Montana Senate race, but will they this year? Republican ads focus on immigration, while Democratic ads want to highlight health care. And the infamous body-slam keeps coming up in the House race. Sally, Chuck and Rob talk about what it all means for Tuesday's election, right 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 capital reporter Chuck Johnson and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.

And Rob, Montana with its measly three electoral votes can go years without a presidential visit. This week marks the fourth visit in four months by President Trump. I'd like to say it's because he loves Montana but I think it's more because he hates Jon Tester.

Rob Saldin: That's right, he's back. We'll have to see if this is the last one or if he's going to try to squeeze in a couple more before the polls close Tuesday night. Yeah you know, I do wonder myself if we've reached the point of diminishing returns on these Trump rallies. As you say, this is the fourth one in as many months. At some point I think the novelty just has to start wearing off and I suspect we've reached that point where the shock and awe just isn't there as much as it was for the first several visits.

The other reality is that with so many people voting by mail now, there are just a lot fewer votes left to get at this stage of the election than ever before. By now most of the ballots sent out by mail have already been returned and these already return ballots are going to make up over half of the total ballots cast. Now I suppose as long as there are votes still out there you've got to see it through to the end. But for most voters this election is already over.

And I think, Sally, the other point you make about what's really motivating this — especially at this point in the final days — is that the president really has it out for Jon Tester. This is personal.

SM: Senator Tester, Rob, keeps saying he's running against Matt Rosendale but in reality he's running against a Trump surrogate.

RS: That's right. This thing has been nationalized. That's what Rosendale wanted. It's not what Tester wanted, but that's the way it's gone. These rallies have become a defining feature of the 2018 Senate campaign and this final trump rally will, I guess, once again drive home the point that Rosendale is Trump's guy. That's been the number one central argument of the Rosendale campaign from day one. He's been content to live or die by his association with Trump, and that's a reasonable political calculation in a state where the president won by 20 percentage points. And I suspect in the years to come it's these Trump rallies that will be what we remember about this Senate election; even more so I suspect than back in 1988 when Ronald Reagan inserted himself into that year's Senate race between the incumbent John Melcher, Democrat, and his Republican challenger Conrad Burns. Reagan cut a TV ad in the final weeks of that campaign. A lot of people credit Reagan for giving Burns that final push that he needed to pull out a close victory. This time we'll have to wait until Tuesday or probably more likely Wednesday to see if Trump can do the same for Rosendale.

SM: The latest poll by Gravis shows Tester with a three point lead, but that's within the margin of error, so it's still basically a tossup race.

RS: Yeah, and you know that's been pretty consistent for a while. You know the evidence we have is far from perfect but it does suggest that this is a close one as we always expected.

SM: But that poll, Chuck, did not factor in the Libertarian candidate. And an odd twist in this race happened this week when that candidate Rick Breckenridge told reporters he's endorsing Matt Rosendale. And here's what he said.

"So I'm here today to support Matt in his candidacy and endorse him in his continuing effort to be the front-man in the cause of liberty."

SM: But then, Chuck, he backtracked and said he's not asking people not to vote for him, Breckenridge. And I'm confused.

Chuck Johnson: Everyone who heard the interviews is confused. Eric Whitney the news director of Montana Public Radio had like an 18 minute interview. And I listened to that a couple of times and I'm still confused. But, the thrust of what he was trying to do, what to Breckenridge is trying to do, is put his support behind Rosendale because of a third-party dark money ad that he didn't like. And it didn't have the required language on the bottom of the ad that said this is paid for by so and so and so and so. You know, the question is, does all this matter? So many people have already voted. But I would say this, that Libertarian votes have been significant in the last couple of Senate races in 2006 and 2012. In 2012 the Libertarian got nearly 32,000 votes and Tester won over Congressman Denny Rehberg by 18,000 votes. In 2006 the Libertarian got 10,400 votes, and Tester defeated Conrad Burns by 3,500. So these votes are significant. The question is whether it's too late to make any difference.

SM: Right. Too late because so many people have already voted. But Rosendale isn't the only one upset about phony campaign flyers and email, or dark money campaign flyers and emails. Tester is also unhappy with an email sent out, supposedly, by the state Democratic Party saying erroneous things like he wants to abolish the Immigration Enforcement Service, or ICE. He's not happy about that either. But this is typical dirty tricks isn't it, Chuck, in the waning days of campaigns unfortunately?

CJ: We always see this kind of thing happen in the last week or two of the campaign, and I think the best advice for voters is consider them with a grain of salt. If you have any doubts you might call the campaigns or the parties. But it's unfortunate because I think a lot of people read these and say, 'Oh is that right.' And maybe believe them. So it's really an outrageous thing for this to happen.

SM: Rob, there's a new ad by a group called the Protect Freedom PAC and this goes after Tester on everything from Supreme Court picks to immigration.

Narrator: "Dangerous mob of radicals attacking our American values and Jon Tester is joining with them condemning Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. It's not surprising. Tester has always supported liberal elites' extreme agenda. Opposing middle class tax relief. Voting for sanctuary cities and opening our border to caravans of illegal aliens."

President Trump: "If you want to drain the swamp you must defeat Jon Tester."

Narrator: "Protect Freedom PAC is responsible for the content of this advertising."

SM: And this ad misrepresents Tester, Rob, on immigration. But it follows to a T President Trump's fear-mongering on that issue.

RS: Yeah absolutely. This is the closing message for Republicans across the country. Immigration is number one, and then in the cases of a number of these red state Democrats like Tester it's also their Supreme Court votes on Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. This is just another indication I think that this Senate campaign in Montana has become nationalized. I think if you asked at the beginning of the campaign if that was a good thing or a bad thing for these candidates you'd say that favors Rosendale and hurts Tester. We're just seeing this play out in similar ways all across the country.

I would say one thing that strikes me about a lot of this here at the end, it does seem like there's a little bit of flailing going on by the president especially. And to the extent he's kind of the front man for all of these Republican campaigns, including the one here in many ways, that's usually the kind of stuff that you see when a candidate or a campaign is desperate at the very end. The kind of try to throw everything out and see what sticks. I'm not totally sure that that's necessarily in this particular instance a sign of people who are worried about the campaign or if that's just the way Trump behaves routinely. We'll have to see, and we will see soon enough.

SM: Plus, Rob, do you think immigration resonates in Montana like it would in states that share border with Mexico, for example? We share border with Canada. We do not have a caravan of Canadians coming towards us, nor would we care.

Right. Yeah. You know, I think traditionally the answer to that would be no. I'm not sure that's still the case anymore. This has become such a big topic nationally, particularly for people who are inclined to support Donald Trump. I'm not sure that actually for people who look to Donald Trump that it matters whether they're in southern Arizona or in northern Montana.

SM: Meanwhile, Chuck, Democrats want to make health care the focus in this campaign season. And that's the focus of this new ad from Senator Tester.

Jon Tester: "I was nine-years-old when I lost my fingers in this meat grinder. My parents paid for the hospital because our health care didn't cover anything. It was Junk insurance. Thank God Montana got rid of junk health care plans a long time ago. Until our insurance commissioner Matt Rosendale let them back in. My opponent is also pushing to allow insurance companies to deny coverage for preexisting conditions. I'm Jon Tester and I approve this message because it's something Montana voters need to hear before it's too late. "

SM: Compelling personal stories, Chuck, I think are always effective.

CJ: No question about that. And I think a lot of Montanans know how Jon Tester lost the three fingers. We've never seen the notorious meat grinder that took the fingers before. It's kind of an eerie looking machine like it's in Frankenstein's lab or something. But there it is. And he still uses that, I assume. Remember one of his ads in 2012 showed him going through a airport security line and they x-rayed his briefcase and there were cuts of beef all the way through it. So, it's a good personal story. And he hits Rosendale in an area where they think he's very vulnerable: that he's not been an aggressive insurance commissioner, that he's rubber-stamped rate increases and allowed this kind of insurance that Tester calls the junk insurance. I think it's a pretty good ad.

SM: Rob, in that House race, Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams also wants health care to be the focus. And if that Gravis poll I referenced earlier is correct, it might be working for her. That poll shows her tied with Greg Gianforte.

RS: That's right. That's a little bit of an outlier compared to the other polling we've seen. But it's also the one poll that we have that's really recent. You know, the health care message — we were talking about the closing message from the Republicans just a minute ago — but you know, this health care message that Kathleen Williams is talking about a lot here at the very end, that's also the message that we see Democrats running on across the country. There's a bit of a nationalizing trend that you see on the Democratic side, not just on the Republican side this year.

SM: Chuck Greg Gianforte also hopes to ride President Trump's coattails. But the president's remarks about him, his affection for Gianforte's assault of a reporter keeps popping up in the national news days after he made those remarks. And I wonder if that may backfire in terms of helping Gianforte in Montana.

CJ: That's a real good question Sally. I sort of pictured behind the stage at the last event and Gianforte starting to shake his head to try and tell Trump don't bring it up again, because it gave it a whole new life in Montana. And then it's shown up nationally like you said. So, I don't think it helps Gianforte a bit. He's not talked about it at all. Williams didn't bring it up until this last ad. But, certainly some Democratic groups have talked about it. And a lot of the press releases use aggressive body slamming type language in the press releases, saying he's body slamming the people of Montana, that sort of thing. So, I don't think it helps him. And the less it's brought up the better it is for him. The more it's brought up, perhaps, the better it is for Kathleen Williams.

SM: You agree with that Rob?

RS: Well, I think one way of looking at this is in the national context, right. So if you look right now, projections are suggesting that Democrats are most likely to pick up somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 seats in the House. But it wouldn't take much, and it wouldn't take anything shocking to send that number up well into the 50s on the high end, or down into the teens on the low end. So, if Democrats have a big night, if the so-called 'blue wave' actually materializes and their gains are at the high end of that plausible spectrum, that probably is going to include candidates like Kathleen Williams. If, on the other hand, that 'blue wave' doesn't materialize, Williams is in big trouble; With the one potential caveat being: is there something unique about this race, is this body slam which I just keep hearing about nationally — it comes up a lot here in the last couple of weeks since Trump was in Missoula — If that has some effect that could upset those national figures where you would expect this one to fit into the national scene.

SM: And of course an assault comes up in the context of truly violent acts that we've experienced in the country in the last few days too. And that doesn't shine a very flattering light on someone who has committed assault, certainly.

The election, guys, is Tuesday and I'm guessing with these races as tight as they seem to be, that it may be Wednesday before we know who the winners are. What do you think Chuck?

CJ: Wouldn't surprise me at all. I think there have been some elections — I'm thinking particularly of the governor's election in 2012 when Steve Bullock and Rick Hill were running — we didn't find out until about 11 in the morning on Wednesday who had won. And I think we could see that this time too.

RS: Yeah same with that year's Senate election, we didn't know that until the next day either.

SM: Well Montana Public Radio will of course be following the results live on election night. And Rob and I will be here to try to give those results some context.

You've been listening to "Campaign Beat" our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk, and I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol reporter Chuck Johnson. And guys, I for one am ready for the votes to be cast and counted. And we'll talk about the results 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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