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Campaign Beat: Can Montana Dems Win On Health Care?

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

Montana's U.S. Senate race is now rated a toss-up. New ads highlight health care as a top issue in that race and in the race for governor. President Trump's waning approval could also impact Montana's down ballot candidates. And a former Republican candidate for governor disavows his party and its top candidates running for high office.

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

Sally Mauk Rob, both polls and pundits are calling Montana's U.S. Senate race between incumbent Steve Daines and Gov. Steve Bullock as virtually a toss-up, and the competitiveness of the race is attracting a lot of money from both donors and outside advertising.

Bullock pulled in an eye-popping $7.7 million in this last quarter, and that's over twice what he raised in the first quarter. He's got to be thrilled.

Rob Saldin Yeah, it was a pretty amazing order for Bullock fundraising. We've actually seen that across the country from Democrats involved in competitive Senate elections. But, yeah, that's fantastic, and you kind of know it's fantastic when they announce it that early.

If you don't have as impressive a result, you typically wait until closer to the deadline, which is what Daines is doing. He hasn't announced yet, though he'll have to do that in the coming days. I expect that Daines will have a lower tally for the quarter, but probably still a higher total for the campaign as a whole. But, of course, Daines also announced way earlier, so he had a big head start.

But, you know, clearly, I think both of these guys are going to have plenty of cash for this campaign. You know, one little indicator of where things stand, I think you can look at some of these ratings systems that are out there. So like Cook Political Report and Politico both recently reclassified this race from "leans Republican" to a "toss-up".

The other one I keep an eye on is Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, which still lists Daines as a slight favorite. But big picture, Bullock really couldn't be in much of a better situation at this point.

Mauk A lot of campaign money is going into TV ads, and here's a recent one from the National Republican Senatorial Committee:

Ad "Steve Bullock supports a public health care option, basically government controlled health care. What would this mean for Montana?"

"It would force rural hospitals to close, threaten employer-provided health insurance and increase payroll taxes by $2,000 on Montana workers. Steve Bullock in the Senate could put Democrats in charge to create a $32 trillion government-run health care system that would raise taxes, limit your choice and access to health care. Think about that."

Mauk Rob, Bullock does support a public option for people to choose whether they want public or private health care coverage. Is that something that could hurt him in this campaign?

Saldin So, Bullock does support a public option - alongside private insurance offerings. So it's a long way from a single-payer system, which is the kind of government-controlled kind of system that the ad seems to be suggesting that he supports.

So that's maybe a little bit misleading, but I guess I'm just a little surprised by this whole line of attack on health care. If I was Bullock, I wouldn't be particularly worried about being hit on health care. In fact, health care is actually an issue that Bullock and the Democrats are obviously eager to emphasize themselves.

So, you know, big picture over the last 10 years, we've seen the political sands shift on this issue. There were several cycles after Obamacare in which Republicans clearly benefited from it, but a mountain of polling data over the last few years makes clear that it's the Democrats who are now more trusted on health care. And it was a key reason for their gains in the 2018 elections.

And, of course, we're in the middle of a pandemic in which people are especially concerned about health, and in which the economy is in terrible shape. And that, of course, has major implications for people's jobs and the health insurance that's attached to many of those jobs. So I doubt anyone's panicking over this line of attack over at Bullock headquarters.

Mauk To prove your point, Bullock has his own new ad out, also concerning health care:

Ad "If we were to lose our hospital, our town would be devastated."

"A few years ago, it looked like that might happen. Gov. Bullock came to Chouteau and visited with the staff. He was able to get Democrats and Republicans together to save our hospital, and rural hospitals all across Montana."

"It's huge. Being able to go to the hospital actually saves lives. He just cares about Montanans. We need more leadership like that in Washington."

Mauk And this ad, Rob, features a retired nurse in Chouteau, and it basically counters the Republican charge that Bullock wants to close rural hospitals. In fact, the ad makes the point that he has managed to save rural hospitals in Montana.

Saldin Yeah, so there you go. I mean, I just think Bullock will be thrilled if Republicans want to make this an election about health care.

Bullock presided over Medicaid expansion here in Montana. It's one of the accomplishments he's most proud of. You know, first, there's just the obvious point that all these people have health coverage now who previously didn't. You know, it also makes the point that Medicaid expansion threw a lifeline to a lot of these rural hospitals.

And just on the politics of that: You know, Democrats struggle in rural Montana and in rural America, for that matter. If Bullock's going to win this thing, he's going to have to perform better in rural parts of the state than just your generic Democrat.

So health care in general, and Medicaid expansion in particular: You know, I think those are things that Bullock can point to as things he's done to help those parts of the state. And, you know, that's turf that he's happy to be playing on.

Mauk Holly, health care is also a big issue in the governor's race between Rep. Greg Gianforte and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney. And here's a new ad attacking Gianforte on health care:

Ad "These days, affordable health care is vital. Yet, we could lose our health care because Greg Gianforte supported cuts to Medicare, cutting access to doctors close to home and cutting insurance oversight so premiums skyrocket."

"The facts? Gianforte takes thousands in campaign cash from the health care industry, gives them billions in tax breaks. Less health care for us, more campaign cash for Gianforte. Greg Gianforte: Out for himself, never for us."

Mauk And this ad, Holly, is sponsored by a PAC called Good Jobs Montana, and it's a PAC that's backed by the Democratic Governors Association.

Holly Michels Yeah, sort of echoing what Rob was just talking about in the Senate race, Democrats really do see health care as a winning issue for them.

We've heard health care attacks against Gianforte before. When he ran for the house in the 2017 special election, that was one of the really big closing arguments from his Democratic opponent, Rob Quist. And Kathleen Williams, Democrat who ran against him in 2018, also really went after Gianforte on health care.

And like that ad highlights, it also really points out that he is wealthy. It's a way for Democrats to argue that he's sort of disconnected to the average Montanan, a lot of whom, even with the Affordable Care Act and the Medicaid expansion, still struggle to afford health care. Even if you have insurance, just the cost of seeing a doctor is out of reach for some Montanans.

Democrats are also, outside of this ad, really trying to articulate a point that Gianforte has, in the past, called for the repeal and or the replacement of the Affordable Care Act. But then in interviews, before the primary election for the governor's race in June, he said he wouldn't support the repeal of Medicaid expansion in Montana.

Democrats are trying to say that you can't really have it both ways. You don't have Medicaid expansion in Montana without the Affordable Care Act. So they're trying to say he's either concealing his real views or not being clear with voters, which might be an effective message for them as well.

Mauk Meanwhile, Holly, the Gianforte camp wants to paint Mike Cooney as a career politician who's never held a "real job." And this attack always kind of cracks me up, because anyone running for office obviously wants to be a politician, but maybe the argument works with some voters.

Michels I think I've seen other public employees like teachers be a little frustrated with classifying their work as the ad that Gianforte put out against Cooney does. But I think we've seen also outsiders to politics do fairly well in recent years, so there might be some effectiveness there.

Mauk And it doesn't help that Cooney just got slapped with a $1,000 fine for a campaign ethics violation, which some voters might perceive as an arrogant move on his part.

Michels Yeah, he did. He participated in a call with the Democratic Governors Association in April, and photos of him on that call that show him being in his office at the state capitol on the call were sent to media around the state.

The Montana Republican Party and a couple other groups actually filed ethics complaints against Cooney. And like you said, he did face a maximum fine of $1,000. The State Commission on Political Practices found that he violated part of state ethics law that prevents an elected official from using public facilities for anything campaign related.

We saw it almost immediately the next day. Republican Governors Association put out an ad highlighting that complaint, and it's kind of a twofer for them. It lets them point out that Cooney broke an ethics law, and second, he's been around state government, their saying, long enough. He should know better.

Cooney's campaign countered that, you know, he's been on a tight schedule because of the pandemic, and they called the fine a small price to pay for working with Gov. Bullock on the state's response to COVID, but this does give Republicans a little bit of ammunition.

You've already seen those ads out. Gianforte's campaign has put out an ad attacking Cooney for his time in state government.

Mauk Rob, national polls show President Trump's approval rating slipping, and it probably is slipping a little bit in Montana as well. Will that affect down-ballot races for candidates like Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte, who are all in with Trump?

Saldin Yeah, I think they've got to be worried about that, and certainly they are catching some heat. You know, I noticed the Lincoln Project, which is basically a group of former Republican political operatives who've been quite successful running campaigns and are are opposed to Trump, are now criticizing Daines, along with a handful of other senators, for being so close to Trump.

And, you know, I've actually looked into this a little bit. I don't think that Daines has ever directly criticized President Trump, right? Go back through all of the scandals that have played out over the last several years. Daines has either remained silent on all of those, or he has offered his strong support.

And so the Lincoln Project, among others, are saying, like, look, this guy is a coward, along with some of the other senators in tight elections.

If Trump's numbers really go down, I mean, that could be trouble for Daines. Obviously, you know, Montana is a state that Trump won by 20 points, so Daines and Gianforte and Rosendale, who's also made a big point of being a Trump ally, they have a lot more margin for error than some of these people running in less-Trumpy states.

But still, I think it's clearly something that those campaigns are worried about because they have gone so far out of their way to demonstrate their loyalty and enthusiasm for Trump.

Mauk Well, the other "X Factor," of course, is the pandemic and how voters perceive it's being handled. We've had some Republican candidates have to go into quarantine because they were exposed to the virus by Donald Trump Jr.'s partner, Kimberly Guilfoyle. And this was at a couple of events where apparently no one wore a mask or practiced social distancing. So how voters perceive the two different parties handling the pandemic could also be a big factor Rob.

Saldin And things with the pandemic obviously are looking really bad right now. Overall, I'd say right now things are looking great for Democrats, both nationally and in Montana. There's obviously a long ways to go until November, but, you know, on some of the big national dynamics at work, it's not real easy to see how things turn around.

For Republicans, obviously, the pandemic could get a little better, but, I mean, you're still dealing with all the fallout in terms of deaths, in terms of the economy and everything else.

Mauk Well, finally Holly, a prominent Montana Republican and former candidate for governor, Bob Brown, this week, he publicly announced he's leaving the party and can't support Trump, Daines or Gianforte. And Brown has always been a moderate Republican, not afraid to criticize the extreme factions of the party.

I'm not sure this surprised anyone, and I'm also not sure it will have much of an impact on voters. What do you think?

Michels I think you're right on both those counts, Sally. If you look back, in 2016, Bob Brown penned an op-ed saying he wouldn't vote for Trump, and that he would vote for Hillary Clinton. You know, he wrote then that he didn't think the country was guaranteed to survive a Trump presidency.

And in 2018, after the death of John McCain, he also wrote an op-ed comparing McCain's death, saying it was a metaphor for the death of the GOP. In that most recent op-ed, he talks a little bit about mask wearing, and Trump's resistance to supporting mask-wearing to stop the spread of the coronavirus, saying that puts people at risk.

He also goes a step further than saying he's leaving the party, and he says that he can't vote for Gianforte, Daines, who he says should have had the courage to stand up to Trump. But like you said, you know, I think this is not something that is very surprising from Bob Brown.

We'll see, I think, you know, there are other Republicans, or any other Republican maybe, could come out also and leave the party: That would make a big statement but, like you said, with Bob Brown, I don't think it's a real shocker for many people.

Mauk We'll keep an eye out to see if any other prominent Montanan Republicans follow suit. Holly and Rob, it's great to talk with you again. We'll reconvene next week. Thanks.

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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