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'Campaign Beat:' Fundraising, Campaign Ads, And The Trump Factor

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

This week on Campaign Beat: who's ahead, and who's behind in campaign fundraising. A new ad introduces a political newcomer in the Senate race, and protesters challenge Sen. Daines for going all-in for Trump.

Sally Mauk: Holly, the most current campaign finance reports came out this week and one candidate for governor, Democrat Whitney Williams, I think gets the most bragging rights in that race, having raised over $439,000 in the last quarter. And that's more, I believe, than any of the other candidates in either party.

Holly Michels: It is Sally. This fourth quarter is the first look we've gotten at Williams' money-raising abilities. That's cause she joined the race October 3, which was past the end of the deadline for the third quarter. And she did pretty significantly outrais the other candidates. Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney brought in about $200,000 over the quarter. And that brings his total for the race to about$450,000, which isn't much more than what Williams pulled in just one quarter. House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, who's from Great Falls, he brought in about $15,000 in the last quarter. And so his totals at about $85,000, which is pretty distant from Williams. Reilly Neill, who's a former state legislator from Livingston is also running. She has reported so far raising about $700 and we haven't seen a fourth quarter report for her yet. But safe to say that she's probably distantly trailing the field. So, yeah, Williams' numbers, I would say, definitely set her apart right now in the financing race.

Mauk: Impressive as Williams number is, another statistic, I think, stood out in her fundraising, and that is that the majority of her donors are not from Montana.

Michels: Yeah, that was the subject of a lot of speculation before Williams filed this report. She has a pretty extensive political and professional network that connects her to a lot of different worlds we don't normally see in Montana politics. Her parents are Pat and Carol Williams, who are pretty much royalty within Montana and Democratic politics. And she also worked in the Clinton White House. So she built a lot of connections there and then founded Williams Works, which is her company that works with Fortune 500 companies and some pretty big philanthropic groups.

And you see that background show up in her financial reports. And there's contributions that we just don't often see in Montana politics, like from Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Larry David and Williams' camp isn't unaware that her opponents could make some hay out of those names. But they're saying that she's proud of those people and it shows the network that she's built up. That would be something she could tap into as governor. They point out that Montana is part of a global and national economy and that businesses here are competing with those around the nation and world for hiring. And that the people that she got contributions from are someone, you know, people she could tap into if she is in the governor's office. If you look at that list, it also has people like the co-founder of Costco, the chief operating officer of Nike. Then there's also people like the mayor of Missoula and some other well-known Democratic names like Denise Juneau, who's the former state superintendent of public instruction.

Mauk: Rob, even though Williams outraised every other gubernatorial candidate in the last quarter, Republican Greg Gianforte in that race still has by far the biggest war chest of all the candidates. I think he's raised over a million dollars total and has three quarters of a million on hand. And that's way more than anybody else.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, yeah, exactly Sally. Not only that, the other top-tier Republican, Tim Fox, who's in second place overall for the campaign as a whole. But yeah, you're right. Gianforte is clearly at the top of the pack. Overall, he's raised three times as much as Cooney or Williams and more than double that of Fox for the primary. Gianforte also has three or four times as much cash on hand just sitting there in the bank that he hasn't spent yet compared to his competitors.

Mauk: And as Holly mentioned though, there are some candidates whose numbers are just shy of dismal in the governor's race and you have to wonder about their viability with those kind of numbers.

Saldin: Yeah, totally. You know, folks like us pay a lot of attention to the money for a couple of reasons. I think first, because good campaigns are expensive and you got to keep fuel in the tank. But second, because aside from polls, which we have few of in Montana, fundraising support is the best proxy we have for just support in general. But it's worth noting, I think, that we can sometimes lose the forest for the trees if we get too obsessed about comparing candidates' fundraising, especially once you get above a certain level, right? Big picture, it's sometimes better to think about this stuff in terms of whether or not a candidate has crossed the threshold of viability, right? Do they have enough money to run a viable campaign? Do they have enough cash to get their message out in a reasonable way. Because particularly in a high profile campaign like that for governor, after you reach a certain point money really does start to bring diminishing returns. And we saw that just four years ago in the governor's race. Gianforte outraised Bullock, but he still lost. And it's not like, oh, well, if only he'd been able to raise another half million dollars, then maybe he would have won. Well, you know, almost certainly not, right? Everyone already knew who these guys were. And one more hit of TV ads wasn't going to shake things up. And so I think you're right, Sally, you can look at the candidates that we have right now and we can pretty easily demarcate two tiers. You have two Democrats who are in good shape and two Republicans who are in good shape and the others not so much. They haven't shown it yet and they're way behind, particularly Casey Schreiner on the Democratic side.

Mauk: Right. If you have a $700 in the bank and your opponent has $700,000 in the bank, you might want to look at your prospects very closely.

Holly, in the U.S. Senate race, another Democratic newcomer, Cora Neumann of Bozeman, reports she raised $460,000. And that's an impressive figure for someone, I dare say, few Montanans have heard of.

Michels: Her campaign released some pretty notable numbers earlier in the week, and people I interviewed said it makes a pretty strong statement for her in this primary. We talked about this before, but a lot of people were encouraging Democratic Governor Steve Bullock to run for the Senate, saying that he'd be the party's best chance to unseat Republican Senator Steve Daines in a field without candidates who have a lot of name recognition around the state. Neumann's numbers are pretty impressive. I think it's important to note, though, that Daines is still far and away ahead of anyone else in the money race. He raised $5.2 million so far, has about $4.2 million In the bank. We haven't seen his most recent filings, but safe to say he's still ahead there. But Neumann's numbers could shake up the race. I spoke with John Mues, another Democrat who's running. He raised about $100,000 in his first quarter and then largely stepped away in the most recent quarter to deal with a family medical emergency. And Wilmot Collins, Helena mayor, who's also running, he's raised about $176,000 so far, and we haven't seen his fourth quarter numbers yet. So it'll be interesting to see where those come in.

Mauk: Neumann has a new ad out online outlining her priorities and a bit of her personal story.

Neumann ad: "One log shaped my entire life, I was a baby. My dad was at work at the lumber mill and the company was cutting corners and being unsafe. A log fell and cracked his skull. Had we lived closer to a good hospital, my dad might have survived, but he didn't."

Mauk: And Rob, this ad starts off as many Montana political ads do, with the candidate outdoors, splitting wood, in blue jeans, etc. And it has a moving personal story before going on to list the candidate's priorities, one of which is health care, which her personal story illustrates. I think it's a well done ad.

Saldin: Yeah, strong out of the gate. You know, look, number one goal for a new unknown candidate is to boost that name I.D., right? Nobody knows who Neumann is. So the first thing she's got to do is establish her bio and give people something to remember. And she does a nice job of that here with this very tough story about her dad's death and her childhood. And that's all nicely interwoven with some classic Montana scenes and activities, but also some classic Montana populist notes, right? She has this image that she's trying to cultivate, apparently, of being a fighter for average Montanans against corporate elites. That comes up a number of times in the ad, right? So it's a kind of this corporate interests vs. Montana families. And Steve Daines is, of course, with the bad guys and she's with the good guys. The health care bit Sally, you're right, that comes up a number of times. That's straight out of the Democrat's playbook from two years ago, that midterm election, which they did very well running behind that. She, also in this ad, pushes that independent button a bit. She's obviously running as a Democrat, but the ad makes special note of her work, not just with Michelle Obama, but also with Laura Bush, right? So that's a nice touch that clearly puts some distance between her and her party's left flank. The AOCs of the world in "the squad" and that whole crowd. So that's another just nice way that she's able to try to define herself. So given the political culture of Montana, you know, those those are all pretty good notes to hit. And again, it's all kind of nicely packaged together with that personal story of hers, which reinforces the broader themes.

Mauk: Holly, she will be facing, if she were to win the Democratic nomination, Senator Steve Daines. And this week he signed-on to a resolution urging a quick end to the impeachment process against President Trump. He calls impeachment, "a political game." And he all but says he will vote against it in the Senate. We'd be shocked if he didn't.

Michels: Yeah, Senator Daines has made no secret he's been opposed to impeachment from day one. That resolution that you mentioned, it's highly unlikely that would pass the Senate since it would need 67 votes, and Republicans have 53 members. So this just shows another time where Daines has aligned with Trump, which is something he's done pretty aggressively. One of the times I remember is when Daines made a point to stand pretty publicly behind a tweet where Trump said that four Democratic freshmen members of the House should go back to the places they came from and fix those three. The women that Trump was referencing in those tweets were born in the U.S. and all four obviously U.S. citizens. It's a situation like this where some Republicans didn't really weigh in on this, but Daines did. And you didn't have to respond. This is freshman members in the House, not in the Senate, and not directly related to Montana in any way. But Daines did choose to respond in a way that got a lot of attention.

Mauk: Well, this week, a few dozen people gathered outside Daines' office in Missoula to both protest his support of Trump's Middle East policy and his opposition to impeachment. And the rally was co-sponsored by the activist group Missoula Rises, and Missoula County Democrats. And here's what county Democratic leader Karen Wickersham had to say to Senator Daines.

Wickersham: "We demand you put country above party. Hold this president accountable for his reckless actions. And we demand that you support a fair trial in the Senate. We want witnesses, we want documents."

Mauk: Rob, there is no question, I think, that President Trump will be an issue in both of Montana's congressional races, the House and Senate races.

Saldin: Yeah, for sure. And I think also on one level, it's not at all surprising that Daines is linking himself to President Trump. Montana's a Trump state. And of course, Daines and Trump are both Republicans, and politics is a team sport. But Holly, I think what you noted is correct, that some of the choices that Daines makes, that makes it notable. And you could say the same thing in many cases about Congressman Gianforte too. It's the degree to which they have linked themselves to Trump, right? Frequently with no caveats or qualifications, just total unmitigated devotion. And in Daines' case in particular, it's a little hard to square, I think, with how he presented himself early in his political career, right? As a decent, honest family man, traditional values, all that. So when it comes in a broad way to Republicans supporting Trump back in Washington, you can see some variation in the levels of enthusiasm out there, right? A lot of Republicans stay quiet about certain things and don't necessarily go out of their way to advertise, just, total adherence, but Daines is one of those who really has gone all in. And Holly. you brought up the bit about the four members of "the squad." The one that I remember best, a Twitter moment pushed out by Daines, is that birthday cake message that he sent out. Do you remember this? I'm sure you can find it still online. It featured a shot of a birthday cake and the icing on the cake depicted him and Trump in the Oval Office. And it all came off as a little bit fawning and sycophantic to me. And, thing is, Holly, as you noted, he doesn't have to do all that stuff. That's a choice. And he does it pretty routinely. And I guess either because he truly does love the president or because he thinks it's in his immediate political interest to do so. And in terms of this campaign cycle, that may well be right. Long term, though, I do wonder if Daines will come to regret how eager he's been to wrap himself around the president.

Mauk: In terms of the political calculation, President Trump still polls very well in Montana, not as high as he was polling after he was elected, but certainly he still has the majority support in Montana. So Daines certainly is well aware of that.

We'll keep track of all of this. And Rob, Holly, stay warm this weekend, we'll reconvene next week.

You've been listening to Campaign Beat, a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio. Campaign Beat features University of Montana Political Science Professor in Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin, and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels, and host Sally Mauk. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.

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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