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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Beat: Conservatism, Campaign Funds And COVID-19 Closures

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

Gov. Steve Bullock faces increasing pressure to ease pandemic restrictions. The two leading Republican candidates for governor trade barbs over an allegation of insider trading. And all the gubernatorial candidates stake out their claim to electability.

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

Sally Mauk: Holly, Republican legislative leaders this week called on Gov. Bullock to ease the restrictions he's put into effect to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And the governor, in a press conference, made clear he understands how hard this shutdown is on Montanans.

I've said to friends, and others at times, I said, 'I'm so over this.' Meaning I would so much rather be doing something else. But I say I wish the virus was, I wish the virus was over this.”

Mauk: And he also, Holly, wrote a strongly worded letter chastising Republicans for "politicizing the pandemic."

Holly Michels: Yeah, Bullock responded with a letter that was pretty strongly worded in refuting some of the critiques that Republicans had of how he's handled the response to coronavirus in Montana.

Bullock has repeatedly said, like he did there, that he wants to see things go back to normal as much as anyone else, but that the virus hasn't changed how it spreads to people. And if we were to start lifting some of those restrictions we're under now, the virus could start to spread just as rapidly as we've seen it before.

Bullock's letter pretty much went line by line, rebuking what the GOP criticized the most, saying public health officials, in a study in University of Wyoming, show stay at home measures have saved over a million lives and are coming at likely less of an economic hit than just letting things play out without any intervention. He also pointed to how bad things are in South Dakota, where there's more than 1,300 cases.

And Republicans, in their letter, pointed to Florida as a state that we should follow in the steps of. And Bullock, in his letter, pointed out that Florida had to call the National Guard to intervene in care facilities for people who are at risk, or older people.

So I've kind of been waiting for something like this to happen, because COVID-19 has dramatically changed a lot of things in Montana, but we still have a divided government. And I think it was only a matter of time before we heard those divisions in something like this. And I think it's something that we're going to continue to see as Montana navigates the health and economic challenges we're facing.

Mauk: And Rob, Democratic governors across the country basically are getting pressure from conservative Republicans and, for that matter, from President Trump, to open up their state. Gov. Bullock isn't the only one being targeted here.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, right Sally. Probably most notably, there was a rally on the steps of Michigan's capital this week, and that was very much directed at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. And we're seeing this kind of thing cropping up elsewhere, too.

So, you know, we've talked the last few weeks about how this crisis has really raised the profile of governors. They're the ones in the driver's seat when it comes to ordering shutdowns and issuing recommendations and the like. And a number of them have got a lot of praise for their actions, including, I would say, Bullock.

But there's a potential flip side to that coin, and that's if people start to think that this thing has been overblown, they may direct their anger at those governors who they perceive as upending their daily lives. And ironically, it may be that the governors who are most at risk of this kind of blowback are the ones who were effective at the beginning of all this, in that their early actions succeeded in reducing the impact of the virus and then leading to this perception that some of these actions weren't necessary.

But this is absolutely something to keep an eye on in the weeks ahead. And whether we see that increase in intensity here in Montana.

Mauk: And, of course, how Gov. Bullock is perceived could influence his race to unseat Sen. Steve Daines. But Gov. Bullock, Rob, must be feeling pretty good about his fundraising numbers in that race. He raised over $3 million in his first quarter.

Saldin: Right, yeah Sally. Great start for Bullock: He raised $3.3 million to Daines' is $1.3 million, so double what Daines did. And Bullock did that in a span of just the several weeks since he announced, whereas Daines had the entire quarter.

Now, that's not entirely surprising because Bullock was starting from zero as opposed to Daines, who's been stockpiling up donations from his key supporters for months. And some of those people have maxed out and whatnot.

But Daines, I would say, still maintains a significant edge when you look at cash on hand. Again, this isn't surprising, he's been raising money for a long time, but Daines has $5.6 million in the bank to Bullock's $3.1 million.

But look, I would say the key takeaway here is that these fundraising numbers reinforce what we've been expecting ever since Bullock announced: That this is going to be a very competitive campaign, and I think the key thing to look for in fundraising isn't necessarily who's raised the most money, but whether you've raised enough to be competitive. And as expected, Bullock clearly is going to be well above that threshold.

Mauk: Holly, in the governor's race, Attorney General Tim Fox is accusing fellow Republican Greg Gianforte of profiting from the pandemic through insider trading of stocks he owns. But Holly, your reporting has found that's not necessarily accurate.

Michels: Yeah. So this claim came after Gianforte reported to the House some trades that were made involving companies, like you said, that are, in part, profiting off of COVID-19-related business. And we see these trades because they're made under what's called a blind investment agreement that Gianforte setup with a company that manages his money.

Gianforte is very wealthy – he's sold a high-tech firm that he founded in Bozeman to Oracle for $1.8 billion – so he's got a lot of money that people manage for him. And that was a concern in his 2017 run for the House, where he said he would set up what's called a blind trust. And that was in response to that he could further his wealth from information he would have access to as a congressman. And your trades made under blind trust, they don't have to be reported to the House.

So this sort of raised the question of if Gianforte ever set up that blind trust. And he said that they went through this blind asset agreement, and said because it has more transparency, where you see these trades. And I did review that agreement, and it is a pretty strong firewall that stops Gianforte and his family from talking to the person that manages their investments, and also stops that person from talking Gianforte, about a lot of things, and very specifically individual trades are individual stocks.

So Gianforte's campaign has said that that firewall is a … pretty strongly says that, you know, he didn't engage in insider trading. And we did see three senators get criticism for making trades on companies related to COVID-19 after they had a senators only briefing. So this is something that, I think, we're hearing a lot of concern about.

Fox's team pivoted after I talked to Gianforte's team about this blind investment agreement. They said that, even if that's the case, the Congressman is still profiting off those companies that are making money off COVID-19, and they argue that's a bad look.

I think we're just going to see a lot more of these, sort of, back-and-forth as we see ballots go out in three weeks and the primary is heating up. So something we can expect more of for sure in the coming weeks.

Mauk: Rob, sticking with the governor's race, Yellowstone Public Radio did a series of interviews with the candidates this week that I found revealing about how they see their chances in that race. And Republican Al Olszewski is arguing he's the most conservative in the race, according to the American Conservative Union.

They've said that, gosh darn it, Olszewski, you're 88% conservative because you're a limited-government Republican. The congressman, he's got a 63%: He's good on Second Amendment, religious liberties, on school choice. You know, he's good on pro-life. But when it comes to big government programs and big government spending, the American Conservative Union says that Rep. Gianforte sucks.”

Mauk: And he's definitely, Rob, staking out a bid for the conservative vote.

Saldin Yeah, sure. And Olszewski in that interview had some pretty tough words for Tim Fox, too. Look, all these Republicans want to lay claim to this word "conservative," although it strikes me that the meaning of that word is actually much less clear now in the Trump era than it's been for a long time.

Olszewski's embracing, as he says, a limited-government conservatism, and that's certainly a prominent strain and conservative thought in the U.S., dating back to Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964 that a lot of conservatives see as having set the stage for Ronald Reagan.

And, you know, I would also say that this particular brand of conservatism also has especially deep roots here in the West with, for instance, the Sagebrush Rebellion back in the '80s and whatnot. I would say, though, that that framing of what it is to be a conservative is arguably not very consistent with how President Trump understands the term.

But, in any event, probably a lot of that is not at the top of voters' concerns when they think about this, and Olszewski is trying to tap into something that's been very effective for a lot of western Republicans over the last several decades.

Mauk: Holly, Attorney General Tim Fox's argument is that he's the only Republican with broad enough appeal to win the governor's seat.

Republicans are united in their quest to have a Republican in the governor's office. Our polling shows that I'm the only guy that can win the general election, but I got to get out of the primary election first.”

Mauk: And Holly, he does have to get out of the primary first, and that's going to be a challenge because of Greg Gianforte being the leading candidate at this point, certainly in terms of fundraising.

Michels: Yeah, there is a pretty steep uphill battle if it's a fundraising race only. Gianforte has a lot of cash left in the bank on the last reports that we saw. Well, FOX doesn't and advertising might play a pretty outsized role in the last couple weeks before the primary, just given that, you know, people can't be out knocking doors or doing grassroots campaigning like they normally would.

I think Fox, since the start of his campaign, has tried to make the point that, you know, he's more well-liked in the state than Gianforte. He says he outperformed him in the 2016 election, getting about 96,000 more votes. And that's fair. But also worth pointing out, Gianforte was running against a pretty popular incumbent governor, Steve Bullock, in that cycle while Fox barely had a challenger.

You know, I think Fox has tried pretty hard to highlight what he's seeing are Gianforte's weaknesses: that Gianforte isn't from Montana, that he's been reluctant to meet with Montanans in things like in-person town halls. He's also brought up Gianforte's assault of a reporter right before the 2017 special election to the House.

And that email from Fox, his campaign that we talked about a little bit earlier, they point to the website, sort of a compilation of political predictions that shows even though Montana does lean pretty heavy Republican in that race, they're still calling it a toss up because of some of those same issues they identify with Gianforte.

Mauk: Rob, on the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who has held several positions in state government, is counting on that experience to matter the most.

I think, throughout my career, I have incredible experience that really lends itself for me to be a good governor. You know, I think a governor who can hit the ground running on day one.”

Mauk: He's basically counting on Montanans wanting more of the same rather than a big change, Rob.

Saldin: Yeah, Sally. I mean, it's almost like he's saying, look, this is going to be a third term for Bullock-Cooney. And, you know, that makes a lot of sense for him and where he's at and his record and everything else.

It also just sets up very nicely this contrast that he wants to draw out with Whitney Williams. And he sees that contrast as playing out, as you know, look, Whitney Williams hasn't been around Montana for a long time. And all that time that she's been gone, doing things nationally and internationally, you know, I've been here in the trenches in Helena doing the work of Montanans.

Mauk: Holly, Democrat Whitney Williams is arguing the state needs a leader with her business experience, and she touts her experience working with former first lady Hillary Clinton.

I, you know, had the remarkable opportunity to work in the administration in the '90s that, many of your listeners will remember, used to balance budgets and pay down the federal debt, something that seems so far away from where we are today. And I'm really proud of that work, and I wouldn't change it for anything. And I'm delighted to bring friends and relationships into this state in any way we can to help move Montana into the future.”

Mauk: She seems to be ignoring the fact, Holly, that Hillary Clinton got clobbered in Montana when she ran for president.

Michels: Yeah, it's an interesting association to highlight. And she also, on Thursday, had a virtual fundraiser that featured former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

And, like we hear her saying in that clip, she's tried to make a positive out of a lot of these connections that her opponent, in kind of subtle ways, has tried to point out her negatives. You know, trying to show that she's more in touch with wealthy people who live out of state, are part of this elite political group.

Williams has tried to counter that it shows she's got this strong network of powerful people who would come in handy, you know, as good connections if she were elected to be governor. So it's something she's been criticized for, but has tried to flip around as a positive, like we heard her say there.

Mauk: It won't be long before the ballots are mailed out, as we've mentioned before, I think they come out in early May. So we'll soon see how all these arguments play out. And Rob and Holly, spring has returned. Stay well, and we'll talk again next week.

Campaign Beat is a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio. Campaign Beat features University of Montana political science professor and 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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