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Trump Endorses 'Steve,' Montana Conservatives Celebrate Their Primary Wins

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

Favorites in the top races won their primaries but the general election may not be as predictable. President Trump plans to campaign in Montana for his favorite Steve. And hard-line conservatives celebrate legislative primary victories.

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

Sally Mauk: Rob, the least surprising result of Tuesday's primary is that Gov. Steve Bullock will challenge Sen. Steve Daines for his Senate seat. But what did surprise me was Sen. Daines almost immediately challenging the governor to four debates. Usually incumbents are leery of debates, so what do you make of Daines' challenge?

Rob Saldin: It is unusual for an incumbent like Daines to seemingly be so eager to debate. A lot of times, incumbents just aren't very enthusiastic about debating because they see the potential for gains to be very limited, but the potential for a gaffe or a mistake that could boost their challenger is a real threat.

But, you know, in this one, I don't expect any real incumbency advantage for Daines because Bullock is a two-term governor, and he's every bit as well known as Daines. So it makes me think that Daines may see these debates as a good forum for him.

Mauk: President Trump, it looks like, is going to come to Montana and campaign for him. Trump, of course, came to Montana two years ago to campaign for Matt Rosendale. That campaign didn't work out, in terms of what the president wanted, but this is something that Daines' got to be happy about, it seems.

Saldin: Yeah, for sure, Sally. You know, the president also formally endorsed him, which is not a surprise. And, in fact, it's a richly deserved endorsement, I would say. You know, Daines has bent over backwards to give Trump the thing he loves most: this obsequious, unqualified allegiance.

And in fact, you know, I thought we saw a pretty good example of that kind of subservient way in which Daines deals with Trump, just this week, right? The day after Trump had those protesters forcibly removed from Lafayette Square so he could walk across the street and hold up the Bible in front of St. John's Church, journalists were asking Republican senators what they thought about that as they were congregating for a caucus lunch. And most of the senators kind of deflected the question. They said, "Oh, well, you know, I didn't see it," or "I'm late to lunch," you know. Others threw up their hands in exasperation, or even expressed some criticism of Trump's handling of the situation. But not Daines. Daines said that he was grateful for the president's leadership.

And so, you do have to kind of, in a way, give Daines credit. I think going all in with Trump has been a deliberate calculation on his part, and that kowtowing just got him this week what he wanted: Trump's enthusiastic endorsement and better yet, a promise for the president to come back to Montana in the fall on behalf of Daines.

Mauk: There's a Democratic PAC known as Majority Forward, and they've wasted no time getting an ad out attacking Daines. Here's that ad:

"In our time of crisis, a disturbing Washington story: Sen. Daines voted for a $500 billion slush fund to bail out big corporations, even Wall Street, on top of trillions in special tax breaks." "Daines voted to give them already, but Daines voted against paid leave for Montanans, and refused to support relief for our hospitals and nurses. Tell Sen. Daines to put Montana first, not Wall Street."

Mauk: And this ad, Rob, has the usual Democratic attack themes that Republicans are greedy and heartless.

Saldin: It sure is, and this is the first wave of what will be at least $3 million worth of ads just from this organization in Montana over the summer. So brace yourself for a lot of this kind of thing. And, of course, we'll get heavy doses of it from Republican affiliated outside groups as well, and the Daines and Bullock campaigns themselves.

But yeah, Sally, we see here in this ad what's clearly going to be the core message for the Democrats. You know, Daines and Republicans are greedy and mean. They only care about lining their own pockets, and those of their rich friends on Wall Street and corporate boardrooms and elsewhere. And they certainly don't care about normal, hardworking Montanans.

Mauk: Holly, the outcome of the gubernatorial primaries also saw the favorites come out on top, with Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney winning the Democratic primary, and Greg Gianforte winning the Republican contest. I think what did raise a few eyebrows, including mine, was Gianforte's margin of victory over Attorney General Tim Fox. He won by 26 points over Fox, who many thought might give Gianforte a run.
[The audio version of this post says Gianforte won by 16 points over Fox, but he actually won by 26 points. We regret the error.]

Saldin: Yeah, I think, like you said, Sally, there really no surprises in the outcome, but Gianforte's margin was bigger than I think a lot of people, especially Fox, was expecting. Fox lost all but two counties in Montana, his home county, Big Horn County, and, you know, Lewis and Clark County, where he's serving as attorney general right now.

I interviewed some political analysts after the vote, and there were sort of two thoughts on what that margin might be speaking to. Some were saying that maybe this divide we've talked about within the Republican Party between the more moderate and more conservative factions isn't quite as deep as what we thought. We did have some pretty nasty Republican legislative primaries, and we saw conservatives win in a few of those, so maybe that follows that line of thought

The other is that, you know, there's been a ton of money spent for or against Gianforte over the last four years. He's run for governor, he's run for House twice and now this run for governor, so his name's just been out there. He's also been on the stage with President Trump and these rallies that he held in 2018 in Montana, so just awareness of who he is is pretty high.

Could be a couple of things, kind of hard to say without great polling, but definitely bigger margin than I think a lot of people were looking to see in that race.

Mauk: On the Democratic side, political newcomer Whitney Williams had a little better showing, but still lost by 10 points to Mike Cooney.

Michels: Yeah, I think, you know, kind of as expected in that race, too, Williams, did pick off a few counties in western Montana. Missoula, where she lives, and then going up to Lake County in the Flathead and down in Ravalli. She also grabbed Gallatin County, which Democrats there might be a little more progressive than the rest of the state, and neighboring Madison County. But then Cooney, you know, really ran up the score in places like Lewis and Clark and Cascade counties, where he got more than 70% of the vote in those two places.

Mauk: Well, Greg Gianforte, Holly, is going to run, as he always does, on his business experience. And it looks like Mike Cooney is going to go after Gianforte the same way Steve Bullock did four years ago. Here's what Cooney had to say:

"We're not going to let this election be purchased. Montanans spoke out loud and clear. It didn't happen in 2016. It's not gonna happen now."

Mauk: And it's true, Holly, that outspending his opponent in 2016 didn't help Gianforte. I'm not sure it's a given it won't help him in 2020.

Michels: Yeah, you know, it is a similar line of attack that we saw that year. He has won two House races since then, and that's something that people tried to hit him with and he came out of those ok.

Democrats were ready with sort of their playbook from 2016 immediately on election night. We heard Cooney there speaking to it. The Democratic Party also had ads they put out right away. It was also a line of attack that Fox brought up in the Republican primary, trying to say Gianforte is trying to buy that primary, and it didn't work for Fox.

But we also have seen, you know, Fox hasn't come out and endorsed Gianforte yet. On election night, I spoke with him and he said it's a two-way street, but he, you know, the next day sent out an email that was still to thanking his supporters, but still pretty critical of Gianforte.

On the Democratic side, we've already seen Whitney Williams in her concession speech come out and say, you know, her and Cooney have their differences, but she's fully behind him now. So kind of interesting developments to be watching as that race goes forward to the general.

Mauk: Rob, the House race, as expected, will feature Democrat Kathleen Williams against Republican Matt Rosendale. Both have run for Congress before, William's for the House and Rosendale for the Senate, and both lost the first time around. But this time, one of them will be a winner.

Saldin: Yeah, exactly Sally. The one thing that stood out to me here is that Rosendale's margin of victory maybe just wasn't quite as impressive as I thought it might be. It was a crowded field of six candidates, although four of the six failed to hit double digits. So the two most prominent candidates were clearly Rosendale and Corey Stapleton, and Rosendale won with 48% of the vote to Stapleton's 33%. So it wasn't really all that close. And Stapleton has run statewide several times, including a successful run for secretary of state, his current position.

But still, I kind of thought Rosendale, you know, because of his higher name recognition coming out of that Senate run from two years ago, might have taken this by a little bit of a larger margin. So I do suspect that the Democrats are looking at those results, along with Kathleen Williams, as a solid victory in her primary and feeling reasonably optimistic.

Mauk: Rob, we talked last week about some key legislative primary races between conservative and moderate Republicans as determining much of the direction of the next legislative session. Do we have a clearer picture of that after the primary election?

Saldin: It was a split decision, but I think you have to say the hard-liners came out on top. So we had about 14 "Solutions Caucus" incumbents. Those are the more pragmatic, sometimes called moderate, Republicans. So we had 14 of them get primary challenges from hard-line candidates, and four of those 14 challenges were successful. And then we had a handful of hard-line incumbents get primary challenges from the Solutions Caucus, and two of those were successful. So that leaves basically the conservative hard-liners with an overall pickup of two seats.

So they came out on top, but it's not nearly enough seats that they picked up that it's necessarily going to do anything to dislodge at least the possibility of Solutions Caucus Republicans partnering with Democrats on some pieces of legislation in this next legislative session.

And then just one broader point, Sally. You know, we might note that outside of the Legislature, the more pragmatic Republicans also took some hits from the ideological purist. Certainly Gianforte's very strong victory over Fox, as you discussed Holly, that was most obvious. But another one that really stood out to me was Austin Knudsen easily defeating Jon Bennion, who was Tim Fox's top deputy in that primary for attorney general.

Michels: Yeah, just to build on what Rob is saying, I think the net gain of two, it looks like, for sort of the more right in the legislature, two that were lost from the Solutions Caucus, looking at state representatives Eric Moore of Miles City and Nancy Ballance of Hamilton, they are a pretty big hit to experience. I was talking to Llew Jones, state representative from Conrad who sort of headed that Solutions Caucus, and he was saying that loss of their experience on the committees that craft the budget is going to be a pretty big hit as we go into the 2021 session, especially navigating what's probably going to be a pretty intense budget session with very dramatically reduce state revenues caused by the coronavirus.

Mauk: Holly, for me, one of the most surprising outcomes of Tuesday's primary was in the Republican race for the District 4 seat on the Public Service Commission. Conservative firebrand Jennifer Fielder pulled out a win over the former chair of the state Republican Party, Will Deschamps, and Fielder is known for her extreme views on everything from privatizing public land to support for controversial anti-government figures like Ammon Bundy.

Michels: Yeah, I think fair to say, Rob was saying that a lot of people more to the right did well in this primary. Fielder's for sure one of those. She might be even to the right of those who are more conservative in the state legislature. Like you said, she's CEO of the American Lands Council, which advocates for transfer of federal lands back to the state. She did say she would resign that spot if she were to be put on the PSC.

She also stood alongside the Bundy family, which has led armed standoffs against federal land managers. It's interesting to me, too, her time in the Legislature, she's really been much more involved in fish-and-game, outdoor-type bills, and not really engage much at all on utility regulation bills. And like you said, it's not like she emerged. It was a three-way primary with people who were pretty well-known Republicans in Montana, and also not the most moderate Republicans either. She got 45% of the vote, so maybe being a three-way primary helped her a little bit. But still, I think, pretty strong statement there in that race.

Mauk: Well, she will face liberal Democrat Monica Tranel in the November general election, and the contrast between the two of them will be very clear, I think.

Michels: Yeah, I think it will. Tranel is a, you know, an attorney who's worked in energy law, so she's definitely got experience there, and she is, like you said, Democrat, liberal. She's a little more moderate than her opponent, who was a pretty vocal supporter of the Green New Deal. Tranel's saying she'd like to see renewable energy priced more fairly to make it accessible, but that's not even a conversation that came up much on the Republican side of that primary.

So, you know, I think it'll be interesting. It's an all-Republican, all male-PSC right now, so regardless of Democrat or Republican winning this race, there would be a woman on that body. And PSC has been a little bit of a mess this year, so I think it's something voters are watching maybe a little more closely than normal this election.

Mauk: Candidates are itching to get off the computer and back on the campaign trail, so we'll be watching for that. Campaign Beat is going to take a short break, but we'll be back on the air July 10. And 'til then, Rob and Holly, have a good break and please stay safe.

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.

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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