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Campaign Beat: Dem Debates And Running Mates

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

Who stood out, and who didn't in the Democratic senate and governor primary debates. Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer reveals his pick for governor. And Mike Cooney picks a familiar name to be his running mate.

Listen now on Campaign Beat, with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

Sally Mauk Rob, Democrats recently held a debate in Bozeman for the five people hoping to challenge Republican Steve Daines in November. And I think the differences in experience and knowledge of the issues were pretty clear.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I think so Sally. You know, these are mostly newcomers that most Montanans probably aren't going to be familiar with. But I think we did get a little bit of better sense of most of the candidates this week.

Mauk Fly fishing guide Josh Seckinger was upfront about his lack of experience and grasp of policy.

"Nobody really knows who I am and I'm pretty okay with that. You know, I'm a fishing guide, I don't think I'm an idiot, but I'm not a genius. I know I'm not the smartest person on the stage and I will never pretend to be."

Mauk I think, Rob, the phrase I know I'm not an idiot. Maybe my all time favorite campaign slogan.

Saldin Yeah. You know, we are in a little bit of an age of outsider candidates, but this one might be pushing that a little bit too far.

Mauk Well, mathematician Mike Knowles has one proposal he thinks would solve most all problems.

"Universal basic income is the biggest thing that we can do to start helping all of these people."

Mauk But he didn't say, Rob, how he would pay for that.

Saldin Right, I mean, universal basic income is something we've been hearing about a little bit more. It's an interesting policy idea. Andrew Yang, of course, the now dropped out Democratic presidential candidate took that pretty far, made it the centerpiece of his campaign. And it's an issue that has, interestingly enough, a little bit of a reach across the political spectrum. Charles Murray, the conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, for instance, has a version of universal basic income that he likes too.

Mauk Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins is the only one in the Democratic primary race with political experience, and he took aim at the incumbent Senator Daines.

"Montana has been short changed. Montanans as one senator. Then a senator decided to joined the executive branch."

Mauk And for a Democratic audience, Rob, that was an effective line.

Saldin Yeah, yeah, totally. It a prepared line for the debate, of course, but a pretty good one. Pretty funny one. And yeah, absolutely, certainly something that is going to resonate with Democratic primary voters.

Mauk Public health advocate Cora Neumann says climate change is her number one concern.

"One of the biggest reasons I got into this race was a dining room conversation, dinner conversation I was having with my children at one point. My daughter, who was 14 at the time, looked at me and said, why are you so concerned with where we're going to college and what kind of careers we're gonna have when the world is gonna be on and on fire in 12 years."

Mauk That was a telling story. I thought Rob. And Neuman has raised the most money in this race.

Mauk Yeah, that's right. You know, we've talked about her before. She was also the first one to have a TV advertisment up. And I think we saw here that she can be pretty good at taking a personal story and using that to talk about policy issues.

Mauk Finally, Navy veteran and engineer John Mues used his closing statement to take a deep dig at his primary competitors.

"You folks may look at five Democratic U.S. Senate candidates up here. I'll tell you what the Republican Party and what Senator Daines is seeing. They're seeing two candidates, one candidate, John Mues, that can beat Senator Daines on November 3rd, 2020. And four candidates who will give Senator Daines a free pass."

Mauk I'm not sure, Rob, how well that went over at a time when the Democratic Party wants to be unified, no matter who their candidate is.

Saldin You know, it also strikes me that any of these candidates that comes out of this primary with the nomination is going to have the same problem. You know, they don't have good name recognition. They're going to be at a big fundraising disadvantage. Muse has done okay relative to the other Democrats when it comes to fundraising. But he's gonna be at a big disadvantage whether or not he's the one who can stand out from this field and take it to Steve Daines more than anyone else. I'm not totally sure. But yeah, that did fall flat a little bit. I thought at the debate.

Mauk Holly, that same event in Bozeman featured another debate between the two Democratic candidates running for governor, Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams. I keep looking -- this is their second debate -- I keep looking for policy differences between them, but I'm not finding much.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think you're right. Listening to you and Rob talk about the Senate race, we did hear a lot of differences between those candidates. But then this debate immediately followed that one. And I heard a lot of the same things from Cooney and Williams. It was pretty similar to the Billings debate. They both had similar answers to a lot of the same questions. Neither of them are really drawing big differences in policy.

One that stood out to me from this is when they talked about prescription drugs. Both agreed they're too expensive. Williams referenced these bus trips Schweitzer used to take to Canada to buy medications. Cooney's talking about a proposal he has to start importing drugs from Canada. So really a lot of similarities. I think the only difference I heard, it's less of a policy difference, but more something Williams chose to emphasize, is this idea she has about really trying to boost state revenues by tapping both out-of-state visitors and then people who are coming buying trophy properties in Montana, but not living here full time. But she didn't really say how she would accomplish that. The sales tax, which might get at that, is really a third rail of Montana politics. But it was one way that I heard her differentiate herself from Cooney a little bit in that debate,.

Mauk Cooney is basically running on the theme of I've got the most and best experience to succeed Steve Bullock.

"Montanans Trust trusted me to be lieutenant governor. They trusted me to be state senator. They've trusted me to be secretary of state and president of the Senate and serve in the Legislature. I know how to roll up my sleeves and go to work first, right off the bat as governor."

And I think, Holly, that argument appeals to those Democrats who want the continuation of the past eight years.

Michels Yeah, that's the point cooney's really making is he's he's the guy, you know, you've elected him before. If elected Bullock who he's served with now in this administration. And if you've been happy with those results, he's the guy you should look to in this election.

Mauk Williams says she can bring the new ideas needed to beat the Republican candidate who she believes will be Greg Gianforte.

"Greg Gianforte represents an existential threat to Montana. He represents a threat to the Montana that we know and love and are proud to call home. And if we're going to beat him, we need new ideas. We need a new generation of leadership."

Mauk Her problem, I think, Holly, is that her fresh ideas aren't that different than Mike Cooney's old ideas.

Michels Yeah, we're hearing a lot of the same policy proposals that they're making these debates. What Williams is trying to say is that she is going to look at problems from a different perspective than Cooney, that she's coming at this from a business perspective, while Cooney's spent his life in the public sector.

Something that is interesting to me listening to Williams say 'I'm the one with business experience' in this race, because that's what we hear a lot from Gianforte when he is running, that he's a business man, that he would take that approach. I think Williams is trying to show, as she mentioned in that debate, that the political landscape is a lot different than it was four years ago and that maybe she thinks it's time for a new comer to step in and see what changes that might bring.

Mauk Rob, Whitney Williams did get the endorsement this week of a prominent Democrat, former Governor Brian Schweitzer. And he sent out a video praising her.

"Whitney Williams, you can count on. She understands the business of Montana and she'll stand up for Montana families."

Mauk And in the video, Rob, Schweitzer puts a branding iron into a fire and bequeaths it to Williams. And of course, this calls up the famous moment when as governor, he vetoed a bunch of Republican bills with that same branding iron, right?

Saldin Right. Exactly. You know, also in that video, which is a couple, three minutes long, that Schweitzer likens Cooney to Schweitzer's first opponent for governor, Republican Bob Brown. And he says, look, basically, you know, like Cooney, Brown had been around Helena, an elected office, for a long time. And I'm the outsider, clearly suggesting that Williams is following in his mold. This, I think, is as a big, big endorsement for Whitney Williams. Cooney, you know, quite unsurprisingly, landed Bullock's endorsement right away. But somewhat more surprisingly, I thought, Tester and Baucus both came out very early on for Cooney. I might have thought that they would have hung back a little bit more on that. So that's the big three of Montana Democratic politics right now. Schweitzer has been off the scene for a long time at this point, but he was a very popular governor and a lot of Montanans have very fond memories of him. And so this is definitely a nice boost for Williams. It lends her candidacy a mark of elite Democratic approval that just hadn't been there up until now.

Mauk And as Holly mentioned, though, Whitney Williams often brings up Gov. Schweitzer, some of the things he did as governor and when he was running for governor.

Holly, Mike Cooney picked his running mate. And it's a name that we're going to be familiar with.

Michels Cooney's pick, Casey Schreiner, who's a state representative from Great Falls, he was House minority leader in the most recent session. But after that, he was also a governor candidate himself until just earlier this month. He dropped out of the race because he wasn't quite getting enough traction. It's an interesting pick. I think Schreiner brings something of, he's from Great Falls, which is gonna be a pretty important place in this election. Kind of can be a toss up county that even if a Democrat doesn't win, they need to do pretty well there in losing. You know, but he doesn't bring a ton of fundraising power. I think that's one of the reasons he exited this race as he was lagging behind Cooney and Whitney Williams in that category. But, you know, interesting pick, familiar face, I'm sure his name recognition got a little bit of a boost from being House minority leader and then his pretty brief campaign for governor. So it be interesting to see what he brings to that race. He's got a young family, which is similar to Attorney General Tim Fox on the Republican side; picked state, representative John Knokey as his lieutenant governor, brings a young family, just kind of that element that some of these other candidates don't have. We're gonna see Greg Gianforte on the Republican side announcing his lieutenant governor pick in Billings on Sunday. And once that's done, Whitney Williams will be the only one who we haven't heard from, who she is going to run with.

Mauk Finally, Rob, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer visited Montana recently in a last ditch effort to convince Gov. Bullock to run for the Senate against Steve Daines. And I, for one, can't believe we're still talking about this.

Saldin Yeah, sally. That filing deadline can't come soon enough. Sounds to me like Schumer left unhappy. You'd think he could have gotten that message from from Washington, D.C. without having to make the trip out here. But that deadline is coming up. So this story should go away soon.

Mauk And that deadline is March 9. Then we'll see what happens. But we're gonna believe Governor Bullock that he is not going to run against Steve Daines. That's been saying that for a long, long time.

There was a lot to talk about this week, and there'll be more next week, I'm sure. Rob and Holly, thanks and I'll talk to you then.

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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