Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Campaign Beat:' Trump Vs. Tester, Split Tickets And Record Turnout

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

Tester picks up votes in Trump country, and Montanans continue a long tradition of ticket-splitting. Governor Bullock has his hands full with another Republican-led Legislature, and this election stands out in many ways from previous Montana mid-terms. Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin break it all down in this season's final installment of "Campaign Beat."

Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Campaign Beat" our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson.

And Chuck, in the Montana Senate race. It was Jon Tester versus Donald Trump, and Tester won.

Chuck Johnson: Well he did, Sally, and he actually made it over 50 percent for the first time. I think the last numbers I saw he was that about 50.1 Percent. He hadn't topped 50 [percen] in his previous two times. It was a tough fought race for Tester. He had the prospect of President Trump coming here and personally campaigning against him in four different cities, and survived it. And how did he win? Well, he won the way Democrats win statewide races. They win the counties that include Missoula, Butte, Helena, Great Falls, Deer Lodge and Bozeman; which is really interesting because Gallatin County is becoming a Democratic county. And he wins the counties that include large portions of American Indians. And the AP did a thing called a "vote cast," which was a poll right before the election, and they found that 54 percent of the women voters in Montana were for Tester versus 43 percent for Rosendale. That was huge. And Tester also had a big lead among voters from 18 to 44, and was close to Rosendale among the older voters. So, those are pretty big things to win. Rosendale certainly won more counties including Yellowstone. And Tester usually did better in Yellowstone than he did this time, but in this case it didn't matter.

SM: Was the Libertarian candidate a factor at all, Chuck? Rick Breckenridge got almost 14,000 votes.

CJ: I think the Libertarian is always a factor in these races. My suspicion — and I don't have any polling data to back it up — but the Libertarians hurt the Republican candidates. That's where the votes come from. And so I think Libertarian votes probably hurt Rosendale, but we can't say it definitively.

SM: But Tester would have won even without those Libertarian votes.

CJ: Correct. His lead was about 1,000 more than the total of the Libertarian candidate. And you can't assume that all Libertarian votes would otherwise have gone to Republicans, but probably the bulk of them would have.

SM: Tester also had a very good ground game, and that's a fact he acknowledged afterwards.

"And the countless volunteers. I Mean everybody in this room and literally thousands of other people have spent incredible amounts of their free time to walk around this state and to talk about how important this race was. And I want to thank you for that," Tester said.

SM: And in Montana, the ground game really matters Chuck. People knocking on your door, calling you up. That in person contact makes a difference in a state that has so few people, really.

CJ: No question about that Sally. It's critically important. And you know, it's hard to say what led Tester to win, but the ground game was certainly a big part of it in my opinion.

SM: Rob, as Chuck mentioned, Donald Trump Sr. Came to Montana four times, and his son Donald Trump Jr. came to Montana several times, and Vice-President Pence, I think, made three visits to Montana; and still, Tester won and peeled off some Trump voters.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, for sure, Sally. According to that "vote cast" project that Chuck mentioned earlier, Tester picked up 14 percent of Trump voters overall, and a full 20 percent of women who voted for Trump. So, this was the Tester strategy from the beginning. Obviously in a state where Trump wins by 20 points you're going to have to win a significant slice of those voters. And that's what he managed to do this time.

Sally Mauk: Morgan Maguire of Flathead County voted for Trump in 2016, and then for for Tester this year.

"I want to see politics changed to where the candidates aren't so vicious with each other," Maguire said. "I would like a candidate to say, 'these are these are the topics that I support. My opponent is a good man. He sees things differently.' But, you don't have to drag them through the mud. I mean, I want people to be nice to each other. I want us all to just get along. And I think our politics divide us. Trump divides us."

SM: Well this is a voter, Rob — and there are several others, apparently — who seem disillusioned with Trump at this point.

RS: Yeah I mean those are the words of a Trump supporter. You know one thing. Just looking back at American history, Montana political history, we should resist the temptation to think that there was a time when everyone was being really nice and that you didn't have rancor around politics, and especially around campaigns and elections; but nonetheless it does seem to be a lot worse now even than it has been in the past. And I think you see that reflected in those comments. And that may be an indication that at least some of those people who pulled the lever for Donald Trump here in Montana a couple of years ago maybe did that as much because they didn't like the alternative in Hillary Clinton and that they at the very least are open to and would prefer to vote for Democrats who keep their distance from that kind of thing; at the very least that those people who cast votes for Trump two years ago are still in play. We clearly know now that those votes are up for grabs.

SM: In our wrap up here we're not mentioning Matt Rosendale. I think that's telling isn't it? He wasn't nearly as much a presence in this race as Trump.

RS: He was a stand-in for Trump, and that was his own decision. And you know as I've said before I don't think that was a bad strategic choice on his part. Look, he's running against a two term incumbent who's very well-known, had a ton of money — way more money than Rosendale ran . And I think what we saw in this election is that it wasn't a problem, necessarily, with Rosendale's strategy, it's more just an indication that being the incumbent, being well liked, you know, these things really matter. So I think it's not that the strategy was wrong. I mean, clearly, you look at those results, you know, 14 percent of the Trump voters went for Tester. The problem with Rosendale's strategy is not that it was unsound, it just, at the end of the day, didn't work. He wasn't able to pull enough of those Trump voters.

SM: Chuck, a lot of the people who voted for Jon Tester also voted for Greg Gianforte in the House race instead of Democrat Kathleen Williams. And that helped Gianforte beat Williams.

CJ: Yeah, no question about that Sally. And I don't know what to say about it except Montanans historically are ticket-splitters in ways that sort of defy logic. I mean, you would think if you were voting Democratic for Senator you'd vote Democratic for House. But a lot of people didn't, or at least enough people to help Gianforte beat Kathleen Williams. And he won by about 25,000 votes in what was a lead that was a little more than I thought it would be, although the later polls showed him with that kind of lead, and he won by about 51 to 46 percent. I thought the race turned the last three or four weeks when Gianforte really went on the attack with his advertising against Kathleen Williams. And the ads were pretty hard-hitting suggesting she was part of the liberal mob and kind of a lackey for Nancy Pelosi, even though, of course, Williams said she wouldn't vote for Pelosi if she was elected to the house. And I felt that she didn't ever really respond very well to those ads which really focused on her gun positions, and I didn't feel like she answered those as well as she could have.

SM: Still though, Chuck, Williams had the best showing for a Democrat in a long time in that House race. She gets some credit for running a pretty good campaign.

CJ: She does. She got 46 percent of the vote, which is the best a Democrat has received in that race since Nancy Keenan lost to Denny Rehberg in the 2000 race. So it was better than a lot of Democrats since then.

SM: Rob, that House seat has been in Republican hands and will likely remain so for a while because incumbents are hard to unseat. This will be a full term incumbent the next time that race is up, as opposed to this shortened version of incumbency that Gianforte has had.

RS: Yeah, I think that's right Sally. The best chance to beat an incumbent is that very first time that he or she runs for re-election. And as Chuck says, I mean, this was the tightest margin we've seen for this House seat in a very long time. But still, at the end of the day, Gianforte managed to win fairly easily. He was well above that 50 percent threshold for a majority of all the votes cast. He actually got 5,000 more total votes than Tester did on the Senate side. So this was a solid victory for Gianforte at a time when he was potentially still vulnerable. Not only because it was his first time running for re-election, but also because of the infamous body slam that was still fresh in people's minds, particularly after President Trump reminded everybody about it a few weeks ago at the Missoula rally. So this victory, I think, really kind of solidifies Gianforte position in Montana politics as a serious force. It leaves him in a stronger position politically than he was last week. And going forward, assuming he wants to retain the seat in future cycles, he's pretty well positioned to do it. Now he also has a real opportunity to, with a full term this time, not the shortened term out of the special election, but with a full term, and to move beyond the body slam he can look to establish himself as a serious legislator who will leave more of a lasting mark on Montana politics and American politics.

SM: Democrats gained a few legislative seats, but Republicans kept their solid majority in both the Montana House and Senate, Chuck. And that sets up more likely clashes with the Democratic Governor Steve Bullock. I mean that's going to be the same sort of drama we had the last session, don't you think?

CJ: I think so. And you know, with Bullock dipping his toes in the water for running for president in 2020, I'm sure these Republican majorities in the House and Senate in Montana don't want to give him anything good he can run on. So I think it will be a tough session for Bullock.

SM: Finally guys, what are your biggest takeaways from this 2018 election? And Rob, I'll go to you first.

RS: Sally, I think one would be — and you kind of mentioned this when we were talking about Gianforte and Williams — is just to make a kind of nerdy political science point, but how strong the power of incumbency is. At the end of the day, it's just very, very hard to defeat an incumbent. And we see that in both the Senate race and the House race. The incumbents are always going to be so much better known.

SM: And better funded.

RS: Right. But just being well-known, right, that name recognition. That can carry you so far. And then on top of that — exactly — the funding piece. Incumbents are almost always better funded. And we saw that here. It was a little different in the House race, Gianforte being among the wealthiest members in Congress. That was never really a concern there, but certainly in the Senate race tester managed to raise a lot more money than Rosendale. And so I think, you know, one of the things looking forward in Montana politics when you look at the benches of the two parties, you know, who are the people who can step up into those roles, ideally already with some name recognition behind them so it's not a total fresh face every time. My sense is that Republicans are better positioned going forward in the future than Democrats are.

SM: And Chuck, what's your biggest takeaway?

I think the voter turnout was really significant, Sally. The last figures I saw were that a close to 70 percent of the people registered, voted, which is unheard of in recent times in an off year election. Looking at the statistics, that's the best turnout in some time. I haven't figured out exactly how far back to go, but it's a great turnout and I think there are several forces driving it. Certainly Tester's ground game. Certainly some of the initiatives. And I think Rosendale and Gianforte had their supporters turn out. This is good. It's nice to see a higher turnout where more people make a decision, not fewer.

SM: I think for me it was how nationalized this election became. I can't remember a Montana election, can you Chuck, that got so much national attention. Not just the president coming here but a lot of national articles about it, national press. I'm sure the airlines were happy about that. They sold a lot of airline tickets to reporters back East. But that to me made this election quite a bit different than previous Montana elections.

CJ: I'd agree with you Sally. You know, to have a president come here four times, it's just unprecedented. And, you know, to have his son and his vice-president come here a couple of times. Tester, on the other hand, I'm sure he could have gotten Chuck Schumer to come here. That wouldn't have helped Jon Tester. He stuck to the Montana theme and it helped him. And I think at some point bringing in all the national people may not help Republicans.

RS: Tester did have a couple surrogates, right. He did bring in Pearl Jam, which for people who came of age when I did, that's a big one. And Jeff Bridges. But in both of those cases, those folks had very clear and deep Montana ties too. And so while these were nationally known figures — they weren't political — but nationally known, but there was still that Montana connection.

SM: Well 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 with the election over, this is our last "Campaign Beat" of the season. And Chuck and Rob it's been so fun I can think of two people I'd rather talk politics with than You two. Thanks guys.

CJ: Thank you Sally.

RS: Thanks Sally.

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.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information
Related Content