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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Beat: Fundraising, Schools And The Politics Of Masks

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

Gov. Bullock's mask mandate becomes a political football with one conservative commentator predicting "mass civil disobedience.” Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen gets into a public feud with the governor over school reopenings. And new fundraising numbers and polls show Montana's top races up for grabs.

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

Sally Mauk Holly, Gov. Steve Bullock this week ordered everyone living in counties with more than four active cases of coronavirus to wear a mask indoors in public spaces. And this was not unexpected, given that cases in Montana continue to rise, but it's not without political risk.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think Bullock waited about as long as possible as he could to put this mandate into place. He had, for a while, as we saw cases exponentially rise in Montana, especially once we hit July, said that he supported local governments putting in mask mandates – a couple did around the state.

But I think, you know, new daily case growth – we set record highs five times just in what we've seen of July so far. We also went from 55 active cases to more than 1,200 of this recording. So, you know, things were really going in the wrong direction and pretty aggressively.

You know, Bullock did sort of get to test the waters as counties and some cities around the state put in mandates, and you saw that there was some compliance. You know, a lot of people I think were asking for him to put this in, but there's also some pretty strong opposition that we saw.

Gallatin County is a good example. Theytried to hold a meeting on a mask mandate and weren’t even able to do it because of people filling a room beyond capacity and refusing to wear masks or leave.

Mauk People opposed to the mask mandate, Holly, say it infringes on their constitutional rights and personal freedom. But here's what the governor had to say to that:

"An individual might think that they have a constitutional right to get sick if they so choose, but they don't have a constitutional right to get other people sick."

Mauk And I'm not sure that argument is sinking in, Holly, with everyone, including some Republican members of a legislative committee that tried to meet this week at the Capitol.

Michels Yeah, we saw the first interim legislative committee that met after the mask mandate went into place. There were three Republican members of the committee participating in a room at the Capitol, and a legislative staffer as well. The staffer was the only one wearing a mask.

So Democrats who were attending the meeting virtually, after a morning break, said that, you know, unless Republicans would put on face masks to comply with the order, they were going to walk out of the meeting. Which would leave them without a quorum, so they'd be unable to take any action the rest of the day.

Republican State Rep. Derek Skees, who's from Kalispell, said that he understood Democrats’ stance and respected it. But he took a stance we've seen some businesses around the state opposed to mask orders also take, of saying they feel health privacy laws stop them from asking people if they were to have a health issue that would prevent them or exempt them from wearing a mask.

So Skees said, you know, he wasn't going to see if people had exemptions, if they needed to wear masks or not, and just continue the meeting. So, you know I think we've seen masks are pretty politicized already, even though they’re a known improvement tool that slow the spread of the virus.

And we heard Bullock say in that press conference: He cited that both the State and U.S. Supreme Court have upheld health measures to slow the spread of contagion before. And state law also gives the executive the ability to address public health deficiencies.

So I think we’re going to continue to see this fall-out sort of in the public sphere, but we've got the mandate. For now, it’ll be interesting to see going forward how people comply.

Mauk Rob, conservative broadcaster Aaron Flint predicts “mass civil disobedience” in response to the governor's order, and he calls the mask “Bullock's burqas.”

Rob Saldin Yeah, right. You know, it's hard to know, I think, how much backlash there really is. My sense is that it's fairly limited at this point to people who listen to Aaron Flint's statewide program.

You know, we've also seen this elsewhere. You know, I recall that group that demonstrated at the Michigan capital with their guns, right? It was a highly visible example of a backlash, but it was contained to a pretty small group in terms of total numbers.

And I suspect that the people who are strongly opposed to Bullock’s new order here aren't randomly distributed in the electorate, but they're basically all people who weren't going to vote for Bullock under any condition, right?

It's not like Aaron Flint was all lined up behind Bullock until this order came down, right? There was never any chance that Aaron Flint was going to support Bullock.

But the larger dynamic, you know, we talked about this a little bit last spring as I recall. A lot of governors, including Bullock, have been seen as doing a very good job in handling the virus. And, by and large, you know, the public has recognized the gravity of the situation and has complied with the steps that Bullock and these other governors have taken to slow the thing down.

But while most governors saw their job approval ratings go up in the spring, there's never been any guarantee that that dynamic was going to last forever. Particularly if you're in a position, as many of them are now, of having to announce new restrictions. You know, but regardless of the politics of the situation, the reality is, is that Bullock still governor and he's still got a job to do.

Mauk New television ads in Bullock’s Senate race with incumbent Steve Daines are targeting Daines for his positions on health care, and here's a new one from the Majority Forward PAC.

"The coronavirus has been tough on us. The only ones profiting off it? Drug and insurance companies."

"So look at what Sen. Daines has been doing in Washington: Daines voted to give them billions in tax breaks as they jacked up prescription prices. Daines even voted to let insurance companies deny coverage for people with preexisting conditions like diabetes, asthma and cancer."

"Tell Sen. Daines to put Montana first, not the drug and insurance companies."

Mauk And Rob, Daines past and present position on coverage of preexisting conditions has been getting a lot of press, most of it negative.

Saldin Yeah. You know, this is just such a hard issue for Republicans. You know, they've been just as a party, you know, very unclear about what their alternative to the Affordable Care Act is.

Now we hear them talking about how important it is to deal with preexisting conditions and protect those people, but a lot of their past votes suggest otherwise, and that most certainly is the case with Steve Daines.

And, you know, just this week, Sally, I noticed that the Washington Post looked at Daines’ record and some of the things he's saying out on the campaign trail, and gave him a bunch of Pinocchios for it, saying that he wasn't telling the truth.

And yet, you know, the whole big dynamic here, I think, is just that if health care is at the center of this campaign between Bullock and Daines, you know, that's a huge advantage to Bullock, right? Democrats in general are trusted much more on health care than are Republicans. And, of course, we're in the middle of a pandemic, which raises those concerns to the forefront of people's minds.

Mauk Holly, one of the many still unanswered questions during this pandemic is how and when schools will reopen. It's up to local districts, but they're looking for guidance from state leaders, and state schools superintendent Elsie Arntzen, who’s running for reelection, is having a very public fight with Gov. Bullock, accusing him of cutting her out of discussions about schools reopening.

Michels Yeah. This all started when Bullock and Arntzen released their own, and uncoordinated, plans about how to reopen public schools in a you know, now what is really just a matter of weeks away.

Both offices released their plans within about a half an hour of each other on the same day at the start of this month, and said that they hadn't seen what each other had proposed.

Bullock’s office has said they want local school officials to look at both plans and also take input from public health officials as they navigate reopening. Arntzen says that she's heard from local districts [that] they really want one coordinated state plan, not two.

Earlier this week, what they were in disagreement about: Bullock made an announcement that $75 million of the $1.5 billion the state got in CARES Act funding, he was going to put toward helping school districts get some of the supplies that would be necessary to reopen, like personal protective equipment, other things to adapt buildings.

Arntzen’s office shot out a statement a couple hours after that announcement, and she also tweeted out that statement – so pretty publicly putting it out there – saying that she thinks Bullock’s been making these siloed decisions on COVID-19 responses.

She said that her office wasn't brought to the table when talking about how to use that money and discussions about that.

Bullock’s office responded in a separate statement, saying they did make Arntzen's office aware. And Arntzen said that decision was made without bringing her to the table. And Bullock’s office responded that they did make her office aware and they question why she would be upset about the announcement of $75 million going toward schools.

Arntzen again, she accused Bullock of making decisions about schools for political gain, but I'm not sure if there's any really clear winning decisions about schools right now. I think there’s a lot of conflict about what's the right step in the fall, and I don't know if anybody's winning in those decisions right now.

Mauk Holly, Sen. Daines released his latest fundraising numbers, $5 million in the last quarter, but that's still less than the $7.7 million that Bullock raised.

Michels Yeah, I think last week when Rob was talking about Bullock’s fundraising, he said, you know, pointed out we hadn't seen Daines at that point, which probably meant the numbers weren't great, and I think that's what we saw this week.

Bullock has been outraising Daines over the quarters since the governor joined the race in March. Daines started, you know, had a big advantage, he'd been raising money basically since he's taken seat in 2014, and he still is up overall by Bullock about $2 million.

But right now, they both have about $7 million cash in the bank, so kind of a level playing field there in what they've got to spend. And they both, to point out, they both have set records in this last quarter for amount brought in in a Senate race over a single fundraising quarter.

Mauk And in the House race, Democrat Kathleen Williams, she's continuing to outraise Republican Matt Rosendale.

Michels: Yeah, she brought in about $750,000 over the last quarter to Rosendale’s roughly $600,000. She's pretty significantly leading him overall at $2.5 million to his $1.9 million.

They're a little bit closer in cash on hand: $1.6 [million] for Williams to $1.2 million for Rosendale.

I think something to point out with both these races, the Senate race a little more, is these numbers don't really capture the onslaught of money being spent by outside groups, especially in the Senate race. And we're only going to see that increase as we get closer to November.

Mauk Rob, two new polls show Montana’s congressional and gubernatorial races are very close, with the Republican candidates barely leading or tied with the Democratic candidates.

And the polls also measure the candidates’ approval ratings, and one of those ratings stood out to me in the race for governor. While 47% of those polled say they have an unfavorable opinion of Greg Gianforte, 48% say they're not sure of their opinion of Mike Cooney.

How can voters, Rob, be undecided about someone who's held public office as long as Cooney has?

Saldin Well, so right. I mean, the big takeaway from the polls is that all these races are close. They're all within the margin of error, which means they're in toss-up territory.

You know, on Cooney, I'm not entirely surprised in terms of prominence and public awareness. Being lieutenant governor just isn't anywhere close to being governor or a member of the congressional delegation.

But regardless, I'd say in this governor's race, a key dynamic here is that Cooney is a blank slate for lots of Montanans, and that's the kind of situation in which advertising can be really, really persuasive in shaping voters' views, because they don't have any priors, right?

Gianforte, by contrast, he's very well-known and people think what they think of him, and those preexisting impressions just aren't going to be as easy to change. So a real key in this campaign is going to be how Cooney gets defined for voters who aren't familiar with him.

And I'd be pretty worried right now if I was in the Cooney campaign; concerned that they're losing that race to define their candidate. At least here in Missoula, I see a lot of ads up that are defining Cooney as basically an entrenched, corrupt political hack, and not much of a response from the Cooney people.

And again, that 48% of people who don't know who the guy is – well, that's really bad if this impression that the Republicans are putting out there takes hold. I don't know if the Cooney people are trying to save some money, but, you know, if their candidate gets defined before the fall here, you know, it doesn't matter how much money you got for the last few weeks of the campaign.

Mauk And those ads are even more important at a time when you can't do the usual sort of retail campaigning of face-to-face meeting with constituents and voters.

Saldin Absolutely.

Mauk Well, summer is heating up and the races are, too. And Rob and Holly, stay cool and we'll talk to you 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.

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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