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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Beat: Dems Debate; Dating Apps; Double The House Seats?

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

The two Democratic candidates for governor use their first debate to attack their potential Republican opponent. President Trump says who he wants to be Montana's next congressman. An effort to get a third party on the Montana ballot has some suspicious origins. The Montana census could lead to the state reclaiming a second seat in the House. And a Democratic congressional candidate shows up shirtless on a dating app ... to woo your vote.

Listen now on Campaign Beat.

Sally Mauk Rob, the two remaining Democrats running for governor, Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams held their first debate this week in Billings. And though they're very similar on the issues, I think voters who tuned in to the debate could find some points of contrast.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I mean, I think the thing that stood out to me, Sally, is that this debate revealed a pretty big difference in the type of appeal they're trying to make. Cooney is basically a continuity candidate. His message is that the Bullock years have been a great success in moving the state forward and pushing back against Republicans. And he's basically saying, look, let's keep this good thing going and that he'd in effect be a third Bullock term. Williams, on the other hand, is more of an outsider. And in a way that kind of seems odd given her parents' prominent role in Montana politics. But she does come to this campaign from the private sector. She hasn't held elected office before and racked up a long track record of votes and positions on the issues and all of that. And one big benefit of that background is that she has more freedom to stake out some positions that might be at odds with certain aspects of Bullock record. And we definitely saw some of those distinctions in the debate.

Mauk Both Cooney and Williams promise to protect a woman's right to choose an abortion, and both of them, Rob, drew contrast with their potential opponent, Greg Gianforte. On that issue and others. Here's Cooney.

"I'm not gonna let Greg Gianforte become governor. He's not gonna be making these decisions. I'm gonna be making those decisions for the people of Montana. And I will stand strong and firm, making sure that women do not need to worry about losing their right to their control over their own body and their health decisions."

And Rob. Both Cooney and Williams hope Montana women turn out to vote for the Democratic candidate.

Saldin Right. Well, whoever the nominee is, they're going to need that constituency. And obviously, the abortion issue is a big one. And so I think we'll be hearing more about that. And it's one that I think particularly resonates. If Gianforte is the Republican candidate, as both Cooney and Williams seem to expect -

Mauk They took it as a given in the debate.

Saldin They took it as a given. And that may be because they think it's a done deal. It might also have to do with the fact that, I suspect, they would like to run against Gianforte rather than Fox. I do think Democrats see Gianforte as the most likely nominee, but also someone that they can beat. Given his track record, given the fact that he lost the governor's race four years ago, the events the night before his special election to Congress and so on.

Mauk Holly, although Williams aimed most of her criticisms at the potential Republican nominee, Greg Gianforte, there was a point in the debate where she took aim at the Bullock administration for cutting health services, especially mental health services, in 2017. And she said those cuts have had lasting negative effects because this administration didn't prioritize mental health.

"Rural health care providers were forced to shut their doors because they couldn't pay their employees. Involuntary commitment rates spiked and without funding for the medical specialists to take care of these patients, law enforcement is left to pick up the pieces. It's unfair to them. It's unfair to our communities.

Mauk And Holly, Williams went on to say she would have, quote, made different choices.".

Holly Michels And Rob got at this when he was talking about, Cooney sort of portrayed himself as a continuation, that maybe third term of Governor Bullock now. So this was another way that Williams could sort of separate herself from what she might be as the governor versus what Cooney was saying he'd like to do. He talked a lot about kind of building on what Bullock's administration has done. And he's not in the same position that Williams is in, where he can't really be critical of any of the things that Bullock's administration hasn't been able to accomplish. Another pretty high profile one that Williams called out in that debate was the inability to continue or advance any funding for pre-kindergarten preschool in Montana. So she does have that opening.

But, you know, I'm not sure what you how that sort of plays with Democrats who support Bullock and of like what they've seen with the Democrats in the governor's office for the last 16 years, if you're being critical of them, you know, what that sort of gets, Williams, but it is one way where she is able to, like Rob was saying earlier, show some separation and where they're different.

Mauk And she closed by saying that she thinks it's time for a, quote, new generation of leadership and a fresh perspective. So that's definitely one of her pitches for her candidacy.

And there will be more debates for the candidates for governor and both parties between now and the June primary. And we'll be covering all of those.

Mauk Rob, to no one's surprise, this week President Trump endorsed Republican Matt Rosendale to replace Greg Gianforte in the U.S. House. And that's got to hurt the other Republicans vying for that seat.

Saldin Yeah, it does. And you're right, it's not a surprise. Trump came out to Montana four times, two years ago in that Senate race Rosendale had against Jon Tester. I mean, this is kind of shaping up, I think, as a nomination that is Rosendale's to lose. There is another prominent name, Corey Stapleton, in the mix who holds a statewide office. But Rosendale goes into this with, I think, much higher name recognition given that Senate run. And of course, getting the president's endorsement is something that helps a lot in a GOP primary.

Mauk We'll see if the president comes back to Montana to campaign for Rosendale if he gets the nomination. It'll be interesting.

Holly, another interesting development in that House race is an effort by conservative national political action committee known as the Club for Growth to get a third party on the ballot. And this isn't their first rodeo in Montana.

Michels Club for Growth has backed Matt Rosendale, who you were just saying, House candidate this cycle. Already this cycle they've spent about a or raised about a quarter million to support him. And in his Senate bid in 2018 they were a pretty prominent supporter of him as well. They filed paperwork with the state commissioner of political practices to form a committee that would work to qualify a minor party for the ballot. In this case, the Green Party. And that's also not something that's new for Montana elections. Again in that 18 race we saw a period where the Green Party was actually qualified for the ballot in Montana. The Green Party itself said that they weren't behind that effort, didn't pay signature gathers to get themselves on the ballot in 2018. And we never actually found out who financed that effort because of some loopholes in state financing law that were actually tightened in the 2019 Legislature. So this time around, we saw a Club for Growth have to file forms that, you know, under 2018 laws, they wouldn't have had to.

They did say, I interviewed a spokesperson for them earlier this week, and they said that they weren't actually going to execute any efforts to qualify the Green Party. They have to report spending for anything they might have done for that effort by April 15th. So we'll see if there was any money spent there. But at this point, we don't really know who's behind this. There's petitioners around Helena that are trying to gather signatures to qualify the party. I've heard of some in Missoula, too. What the Green Party would do, or what Democrats think the Green Party would do, is perhaps siphon off votes from their candidates in races in Montana, especially looking at that House race and Kathleen Williams versus Rosendale. It's something that, this concept isn't new in Montana politics. In the Tester-Rehberg Senate race there was a group that had supported Tester that spent a significant amount of money running ads supporting the Libertarian candidate in that race, which was seen as possibly siphoning votes off from Rehberg. So it's a concept we've seen around Montana politics.

What we do have this cycle is whoever is spending money to get the Green Party on the ballot does have to report that. Now, the Green Party in Montana has said that they're not involved with any of these gathering efforts right now, that they really don't plan to try to get on the ballot through signature petition until 2022 and that they don't really have any candidates this cycle either. So waiting for that April filing to probably get a better idea of who's behind these efforts.

Mauk I hope voters, Holly, are catching on to these kinds of shenanigans; and we will continue to shine a light on them as we can.

Rob, Montana has only had that one House seat since 1992. Before then we had two seats in the House, and congressional seats are, of course, based on population. And there's a good chance the 2020 census will give Montana that extra House seat back.

Saldin Well, I think it's going to be really close. So the latest projection I saw has us edging out Rhode Island by about 9,000 people. So that really is razor thin. It could go either way. But if it happens, of course, it could be a big deal for Montana.

You know, as it stands right now, our representative in the House has to cover the entire state. And in a state maybe like Rhode Island, maybe that's not a big deal. But in a vast, sprawling state like Montana, that's just a lot of ground you have to cover. And unlike senators who also obviously have to cover the full state, these House members have a much smaller budget to work with. And that means fewer offices across the state, less staff. So bottom line, serving in the House, it's not an especially glamorous job. And I think that's at least part of the reason why we've basically had a revolving door now in that position for a long time, Right? Steve Daines, one term. Ryan Zinke, one term. Gianforte, one and a half terms. Right? And that's just a terrible dynamic for the state, because the way Congress operates to a very large degree is based on seniority. So ideally, you want to have someone back there who's gonna be there for a long time and work their way up, be in a position to chair committees and subcommittees, get a foothold in the appropriations process and all of that. And you cannot do any of that in just one or two terms. So hopefully if we do get that that second seat back, you would make it a little bit more appealing.

It would also be interesting just politically, presumably, the line would be cut to make a western district and an eastern district. That's the way it was before. And if that was the case, you'd think Democrats would have a very good chance of having that seat in the west. It would be competitive, I think, but Democrats would have a good chance. That eastern seat, you'd have to think would be solidly Republican. But it would make for a more interesting landscape in Montana politics.

Mauk And your point is well made. When we had two seats, the ones who held and held it for many years. Pat Williams, I think served 18 years. Ron Marlenee served a long time.

Saldin Yeah, it would make it a much easier job. And that's what you want. And both those guys were able to get in positions, you know, to a lesser extent, Denny Rehberg did the same thing in that full At-Large District. But you can see more recently people have just used it as a stepping stone to get on to their next thing. And that's maybe good for those people to use it as a platform, but is not a good situation for the state of Montana.

Michels One thing I think is interesting, you know in the importance of the census in Montana and that count and getting as many people to respond to the census as possible, Montana only got about, I think, $100,000 from the state Legislature to kind of promote the census, while other states are spending millions and millions. So that's an interesting juxtaposition to me, the importance of getting as many people counted as possible, trying to get that seat in there. You know, there's committees, the complete count committee, Montanans doing as much as they can with that. But we are at a pretty significant financial disadvantage compared to other states that are trying to make sure they're counting all their residents.

Mauk Finally, Holly, one of the Democratic candidates running for the House, Tom Winter, has a provocative Valentine's Day ad out, and it's a fake Tinder ad. Tinder being the dating app. And it shows him standing shirtless in a river. And the copy on the ad says things like, "If you're not game to talk health care, it's not going to work out." The ad has made national news, but I can't decide if it's too clever by half or what.

Michels I think my first thought when I saw that is what the response would be if a woman candidate running for office did something similar and kind of what backlash they would face. I think it's interesting you see candidates doing what they can to kind of get their name out there. And Winter is pretty significantly trailing Williams in the fundraising side of that race. So, you know, any attention he can get kind of helps his campaign. You see a lot of silly stuff on Twitter. And I think for us who follow that pretty closely and are plugged into Twitter and you kind of follow that world, we interact with it a lot more than, you know, I don't know if I went to the store in Helena, someone if I brought that up, if they'd seen it or know what Twitter or Tinder was. But it's just interesting as we get into election cycle, some of the stuff you see that gets attention and stuff. We're seeing more as that becomes more common part of campaigning.

Mauk Well, I have to say that Tinder has not been part of my political scanning lately, but who knows, Maybe I should do that. Holly and Rob, we'll talk about all this again next week. Thanks.


This is Campaign Beat, a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio featuring University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin, 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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