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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

As COVID-19 Fuels Uncertainty, Political Ads Hit Familiar Themes

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

Tonight on Campaign Beat: Montana leaders have different takes on the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. New campaign ads emphasize jobs and values. And political newcomers are likely the most challenged by the shortened campaign season.

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

Sally Mauk: Well Rob, Sen. Daines held a telephone town hall earlier this week where he listed the amount of protective gear Montana's received from the feds to help with the COVID-19 pandemic. You know, things like surgical masks and gloves.

But recently, Gov. Bullock in a conference call with the president, complained that Montana's in dire need of more tests kits to detect who has the virus.

"Literally, we are one day away, if we don't get test kits from the CDC, then we wouldn't be able to be tested in Montana," Bullock said.

"We have gone, time and time again, to the private side of this, the private market, and where the private market is telling us is that it is the national resources that are then taking our orders apart. Basically, so we're getting our orders cancelled, and that's for PPEs, that's for testing supplies, that's for testing equipment.

So, while we're trying to do all the contact tracing, we don't have adequate tests to necessarily do it, we don't have the PPE along the way, and we're not finding the markets to be able to do that ... But we just don't have enough supplies to even do the testing."

President Trump's response: "But I haven't heard about testing in weeks. We've tested more now than any nation in the world. We've got these great tests ... But I haven't heard about testing being a problem."

Mauk: But Rob, Gov. Bullock and Sen. Daines apparently have two very different assessments of how the federal government is or is not helping Montana cope with this pandemic.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, Sally, it certainly is a contrast. You know, Daines, as you say, had a pretty upbeat attitude in that tele-town hall, at least in so far as protective equipment for those frontline workers is concerned. But then obviously a very different message in the exchange between Bullock and and Trump.

And, you know, I think it is a little bit of a more difficult situation for Steve Daines, because with a Republican in the White House and clear issues in terms of, at the very least, the initial response, Daines is in more of a challenging position in that he's pulled into and associated with some of that.

And you see that pretty clearly again in that clip between Bullock and Trump. You know, to the extent we can be shocked anymore at this point, it is pretty jarring to hear the president be so dismissive of that issue that Bullock raised and that a lot of people are raising. And just because, like a lot of Republicans, Daines has hugged Trump so tightly over these years, he does, just by virtue of that association, get pulled into some of that.

Mauk: Every Montanan, of course, is feeling the pain of this pandemic, some way more than others, and it seems to me Rob that how our leaders, state and federal leaders, help us cope, or fail to help us cope, will surely impact how people vote in November. People are going to remember that.

Saldin: Oh, yeah. I mean, we're kind of in uncharted waters here. I mean, I think the way things look right now, I mean, this is likely to be the issue for the campaign and the election.

Mauk: Holly, Congressman Greg Gianforte, who hopes to win the Republican nomination for governor, has a new campaign ad out that features employees of his former company, RightNow Technologies in Bozeman. And here's part of that ad:

"I worked with Greg Gianforte at RightNow Technologies for 12 years. Greg is probably the most disciplined person I know."

"Really unparalleled leadership experience."

"To build a team of 500 employees in Montana is a really significant achievement."

Mauk: And Holly, this has always been Gianforte's message in all his campaigns, that he is a "job creator," and I think it's an effective ad.

Holly Michels: Yeah, I think you're right Sally. I think, you know, in normal times, it would be a really effective ad. I'm kind of curious how it might play right now, but RightNow Technologies has had a pretty huge influence in the Gallatin Valley.

A lot of jobs came out of that company specifically, and it brought a lot of other tech companies to that area, and has really made it one of the, you know, fastest growing, most robust places in the state. And Gianforte's always pointed to that, in his first campaign for governor, and then both of his runs for House, he's emphasized you're not just creating jobs, but creating these really high-wage jobs.

You know, I think it's interesting that, you know, he's now running again for governor and we're hearing him talk about his time at RightNow Technologies, and what he did in that role. Not, like his opponent Attorney General Tim Fox in the Republican primaries, talking about his time as attorney general and what he's done there. Here Gianforte really isn't pointing to things he's done while he's been in Congress, but coming back to this RightNow Technologies and the role it's played in jobs in the Bozeman area.

I'm kind of curious to see how that looks. He was adding up unemployment claims in Montana, and we've had 55,000 filed since we had our first cases of COVID-19. And you know, I think right now a lot of Montanans are worried about just jobs in general. You know, having some sort of employment when we come through this, not necessarily high-wage jobs.

I'm wondering sort of how that plays, but this has been something that has been, like you said, a consistent message for Gianforte all along, and it has worked for him in the past, so I'm curious what that will look like in this primary in June.

Mauk: Right. With all the layoffs to come, who knows? And Rob, as Holly just mentioned, one of the people hoping to keep Gianforte from getting the Republican nomination is Attorney General Tim Fox, and he also has a new ad out:

"Tired of out-of-state millionaires moving into Montana and forcing their values on us? Meet Tim Fox, a trusted, tested conservative, born and raised here.

"As attorney general, Fox stood with President Trump to fight illegal immigration and to secure our borders against the drug cartels. As governor, Tim Fox will protect our private property rights, and our families."

"In Montana, you can't buy votes, you earn 'em. Together, let's make a stronger Montana."

"Tim Fox: Trusted, tested, conservative."

Mauk: Rob, nowhere in this ad do you hear the name Greg Gianforte, but you do hear things like "out-of-state millionaires moving into Montana." And I think we know whose name Fox hopes comes to voters minds.

Saldin: Yeah, yeah, that's definitely not subtle, right? Obviously, without quite saying so, Fox is suggesting that Gianforte's a carpetbagger who's different from us. He's a bad outsider, a rich guy from New Jersey, who poses a threat to our virtuous Montana way of life or something like this.

And of course, we've seen this charge before. Democrats have leaned hard on this in three election cycles, going back to Gianforte's first run for governor in 2016. And I think at least, you know, fairly or not, this is something that resonates with voters. Gianforte has always underperformed where you'd think a generic Republican should be, and I think this knock probably explains quite a bit of that.

And just yet, you know, for what it's worth, I've always thought this charge has been pretty unfair. Gianforte's, he's been here for well over 20 years. He started the business that made him so wealthy. When he was here, he raised his kids here, and so on. But that's, actually to go back to the first ad, yo, Holly, that's why I think that that first ad from Gianforte is so good, just in terms of, you know, do you have a negative or a positive impression of Gianforte?

You know, I saw that ad of Gianforte's as really pushing back directly on this carpetbagger point. And, you know, not only do you have all those personal testimonials, which I think work really well just on their own, but it's also all couched and wrapped up in a way, and the visuals get at this, too, that it just highlights Gianforte's connection to place. And it makes clear that Gianforte, at least in his telling, does have real Montana cred, that he is one of us.

Michels: I think that's a really good point. When I was watching that ad, I was ticking through, and I probably know five people who have jobs related to RightNow. So that is a fair, good point to be making, that a lot of people are connected to that.

Mauk: Holly and Rob, as we've discussed before, traditionally in-person campaigning has been suspended for who knows how long because of the pandemic. And it seems to me this most hurts candidates who aren't already either incumbents or household names. You know, folks like John Mues or Whitney Williams, for example, and Holly, they just have so few ways now to get voters' attention, and to get dollars from donors.

Michels: They do, Sally. You know, we're ramping up to a point where normally right now, I would be talking to all of these candidates, you know, several times a week, putting together profiles of them and their races, and we're shifting to do that. But so much of the media in Montana right now is focused on covering the coronavirus, and that really is not giving these new challengers a platform that they normally rely on to get their messages out.

You know, they do have Facebook pages, Twitter, but I was looking at some of the reach that some of them have. You know, Whitney Williams is, she just doesn't have the followers that, you know, Mike Cooney, lieutenant governor, not an incumbent for governor, but kind of out there and known, doesn't have the reach that he has on those platforms that I think candidates are looking to as media isn't focusing on their races as much as they would be in a different year.

Mauk: And Rob. You agree, I'm sure?

Saldin: Yeah, yeah. Totally agree. I mean, it's like everything has just been frozen in place.

You know, we know that incumbency and name recognition are just huge advantages to start with. And now challengers who don't have that name recognition, they're basically hit with a double whammy Holly, as you suggest. I mean the virus is totally dominating the news and commanding our attention, and thereby leaving the campaigns as a distant afterthought.

But then on top of that, as if that isn't bad enough, you've got challengers who aren't even able to engage in the kinda campaign one-on-one stuff, like holding events and knocking on doors. So it's a really tough thing for their campaign staff to grapple with this.

Mauk: And of course, this is probably going to be the situation, one would guess, right up to the June primary. But after that, who knows? People may be able to get back to more traditional campaigning this summer. We just don't know.

Michels: Yeah, it's going to be interesting to see.

Saldin: Yeah, I mean, I'm far from an expert in any of this, but there's a lot of speculation that we're potentially going to have a whole second wave of this. So maybe it goes away to one degree or another over the summer, but could come back in, say, October, kind of right at the peak of campaign time.

Mauk: Well these are such strange times that even an earthquake this week seemed like no big deal.

Rob, technology willing, we'll talk again next week. We're all speaking to the listeners from the safety of our respective homes so the sound quality may not be quite up to what we usually have in-studio, but we're doing our best to also do the right and safe thing.

Holly and Rob, thanks as always and take care.

Campaign Beat, is 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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