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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Beat: Money, Mobs And Corruption

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

Montana's U.S. House race looks to be tight and maybe getting tighter. New ads in the Senate race allege corruption and kowtowing to the "liberal mob." And the candidates in that race agree to three debates this fall.

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

Sally Mauk Rob, in the U.S. House race Democrat Kathleen Williams continues to outraise her Republican opponent Matt Rosendale, but The Cook Political Report continues to see the races "leaning Republican." And in part, that's because no Democrat has won that seat since 1994. So it's still, I think, Rob, seen as an uphill battle for Williams.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I agree, Sally. You know, both of them are doing well in terms of fundraising, and in fact, they're both among the handful of top-funded candidates in the country, which to me is a clear indication that both the Republicans and Democrats see this one as a competitive election.

Williams is actually doing a little better than Rosendale, but, you know, he's going to have plenty to do what he wants to in the campaign. There was also one poll out this month that showed it all tied up.

But, yeah, my own sense, though, is that Rosendale has to be a slight favorite in this one. All things being equal, Republicans have a significant built-in advantage in Montana.

And plus, Rosendale's been around longer, so he's already been elected statewide as auditor. He ran that high-profile Senate campaign against Jon Tester two years ago. And he's almost, because of all that, certainly got higher name ID than Williams, who I think remains a little bit undefined for a lot of voters. And additionally, one of Williams' strengths as a candidate two years ago was her retail campaigning, and of course, that's not possible this time.

But yet, you know, all that said, the broader backdrop for this election is about as good as it can get for Democrats, and it's not easy to see how things are going to improve all that much for Republicans between now and November, between the pandemic and the economy and President Trump's continued struggles.

And Rosendale, of course, has some weaknesses as a candidate. He sometimes comes off as a bit awkward, and on the issues, he sometimes comes off as pretty strident as an ideologue.

Mauk Rosendale continues to oppose the Affordable Care Act, Rob, and that now provides health insurance for tens of thousands of Montanans.

And that might have been a popular stance for Republicans at one time, but is it now, in the middle of a pandemic to be opposed to something that's providing health insurance for thousands of Montanans?

Saldin Well, yeah, exactly, Sally. I mean, his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, that's actually been one of his most identifiable positions, I'd say. And during his time as state auditor, which is the office tasked with regulating the insurance industry and protecting consumers, he's been right in the middle of it.

He's been a strong opponent of the Affordable Care Act, and as we talked about a couple weeks ago with regard to that Senate campaign, that position just isn't popular with the public anymore like it was a few cycles ago in the aftermath of Obamacare actually being passed. And, now on top of it, we're now in the middle of a pandemic and the various anxieties that that provokes. So this does have a potential, I think, to be a real weakness for Rosendale, and it's certainly one that the Democrats have identified and are trying to exploit.

Mauk Holly, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has a new ad out basically accusing Gov. Steve Bullock of corruption, and the ad accuses Bullock of steering millions of dollars worth of state contracts to a firm that was founded by Bullock's brother. Here's the ad:

Ad "We all know about Steve Bullock' government-run health care plan that will close rural hospitals and raise taxes, but there's more: Bullock has been accused of steering state grants to his brother's firm."

"It turns out a company founded by Bullock's brother received more than $14 million from state agencies."

"Steve Bullock: Steering hospitals away from Montana, and business to his own family. Think about that."

Mauk The ad, Holly, leaves out some important details, and the president of the firm referenced in the ad has demanded that it be taken off the air because, in his opinion, it is so erroneous.

Holly Michels Yeah. Right after this ad started airing - it's Pioneer Technical Services in Butte, which isn't directly named in the ad - but they sent a letter to TV stations around the state who are running it, asking them to take it down.

The letter said that Bullock's brother Bill resigned as CEO from Pioneer in 2004, and has sold his interest in the company to the employees by 2009, which is three years before Bullock was first elected to the governor's office.

I reached out to NRSC, and they said they stand behind the ad. They pointed to these corporate filings that show that Bullock's brother is still chairman of the board at Pioneer.

But Pioneer sent another letter to TV stations again on July 27, again saying the ad was false, misleading and defamatory. They say that Bullock's brother became chair of the board in 2017, and the next year he got a stipend of just $1,500. And they say that aside from this stipend, the governor's brother doesn't make any money from the company and has no financial stake in it. NRSC's trying to say as chairman of the board, he still has direction over it and would have interest in the company doing well.

I did reach out to TV stations that are running the ad. One replied that they got the letter from Pioneer, talked to their lawyers and decided to keep the ad on the air.

I think it's interesting. We did see an iteration of this ad in 2012, when Bullock was a first-time governor candidate, and it was pulled by NBC Montana over claims about money going to Pioneer. At that time, they pulled the ad saying that as attorney general, Bullock had no oversight over the grants the ad talks about.

I think it's unclear at this point. I think next steps, if ads … I haven't heard from any other stations that they would take down the ads. Pioneer did warn that they would consider a lawsuit over defamation, so that might be the next step that we see if nothing else changes and this ad keeps airing.

Mauk The thing about ads that sling mud is that sometimes the mud sticks, no matter what the facts are. And, of course, that's the point.

Also this week, Holly, the Bullock campaign fired a young staffer for some offensive tweets he had posted some years ago.

Michels Yeah, this was Evan McCullers, who was a junior staffer who worked on communications for the campaign.

These tweets - in them, he made statements that made light of sexual assault. Some language is homophobic. There were statements that were derogatory toward black people and women. And he was fired just a couple hours after these tweets were surfaced online.

It looks like McCullers was a teenager at the time that these tweets were written, and he released a statement through the campaign after he was let go apologizing for them and saying that he's evolved since making them. But the campaign, you know, they also issued a statement saying the tweets are inappropriate, and once they learned about them, they did let McCullers go.

Mauk Well, Rob, again in the Senate race, Sen. Steve Daines has a new ad featuring Wibaux Sheriff Shane Harrington. Here's that ad:

Ad "These liberal attacks on law enforcement are a real threat to public safety, but Steve Bullock refuses to stand up for law and order."

"Bullock's campaign is being bankrolled by the liberal mob. That's why Bullock's been silent while left-wing radicals try to defund our police, erase our history and turn America into a socialist country."

"Steve Bullock doesn't share our Montana values: He's with the liberal mob."

"I'm Steve Daines and I approve this message."

Mauk And whew, Rob, this ad has all the catch phrases: socialism, liberal mob and left-wing radicals.

Saldin Right? Yeah, it's a real doozy. I'm a little skeptical, though, that this one is going to stick because it just seems a little over the top. You know, maybe this is the kind of thing that would work on a candidate that no one has heard of, but Bullock is well-known after his now nearly two terms as governor, one term as attorney general, the state's top law enforcement position. So this ad, which features all these images of just full-fledged rioting, it just doesn't seem consistent with what we know of Bullock. It just strains credulity a bit too much, it seems to me.

It also strikes me as unintentionally funny in its assertion that we should be scandalized by Bullock's silence in the face of the far left's excesses, right? Not the Democratic Party's left flank, mind you, but the violent rioters depicted in this ad. It's just a bit ironic, because Sen. Daines has - for nearly four years now - maintained his own silence in the face of routine outrages from President Trump. To my knowledge, he's never leveled any direct criticism of the president. And unlike the so-called liberal mob that this ad is trying to connect to Bullock, Daines is undeniably linked to Trump, right? They have this close personal relationship, Trump is a leader of Daines' party. So it's a little amusing to me to see the Daines campaign condemning someone for cowardly silence.

Mauk Holly, it looks like there will be three debates between Gov. Bullock and Sen. Daines this fall.

Michels Yeah, we saw this week the Bullock campaign agreed to three of the four debates that Daines had proposed. He came out less than 24 hours after the June primary, calling for Bullock to agree to participate in these four debates.

There'll be a Montana Broadcasters Association debate coming up Aug. 8, which is pretty soon here, a Montana PBS debate Sept. 28 and a Montana Television Network debate Oct. 10.

I think Daines' campaign was critical for Bullock's camp not expecting a Montana Chamber of Commerce debate.

I do think debates are going to be pretty important this year, with the coronavirus and campaigns limited from hosting in-person events like they would in a normal year. This gives voters a chance to see the candidates at their, you know, on TV at home, and sort of see how they interact together, so I think those will hopefully be pretty heavily watched this year.

Mauk Holly, there's been yet another campaign finance complaint filed in the governor's race, and this time it's by the Montana Democratic Party against Republican Greg Gianforte.

Michels Yeah. What this complaint is saying is that Gianforte coordinated with a political action committee to work around campaign contribution limits that a governor's campaign has.

It's referencing an invitation to a campaign event where Gianforte told people if they'd already maxed out giving to his campaign, they could give to this political action group.

It's going to be up to the commissioner of political practices to determine if that counts as illegal coordination, but I think the point of these complaints...

I don't think individual people and voters really track them much or watch what happens with them. It feels like, to me, sometimes this process is more about getting coverage of a candidate being accused of wrongdoing than the actual complaint itself.

There are, of course, genuine findings of candidates breaking ethics laws. We saw Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney get dinged with the maximum fine for participating in a campaign call from his official office. But we also saw, right after that and while the complaint was still filed and pending, a lot of attack ads about that.

I think, you know, looking at so far this year, just looking at campaign finance complaints: There's been 11 that are still pending, 19 already resolved, so it gives you an idea of the magnitude of how many we've seen.

It's also interesting to look at who's bringing these complaints. They're most often brought by political opponents, or political parties or figures adjacent to them. It's not members of the public really using this process to ask questions about things they think that might not be compliant with the law.

So you see a lot of coverage. I'm not sure if voters are really tracking the granular details of each individual complaint and the findings, but more seeing it when they pop up in campaign advertising.

Mauk Rob, here we are, just three months out from the election, and we're in the middle of a raging pandemic and fire season is just beginning. I wonder if voters are so overwhelmed, they just want 2020 and the election to be over.

Saldin Maybe, Sally, but it's a little hard to escape.

I actually think there is a higher level of engagement than normal - and part of that may have to do with people having more time on their hands - but we're also just living through such a crazy and incredibly politicized time right now, it's hard to get away from the politics.

And that's clearly immersed itself in the pandemic, and debates over masks and opening schools and everything else: it's all politicized. With that heightened level of engagement and awareness, though, I also get the sense that we're looking at an electorate in which there are just fewer undecided voters than normal.

So my sense is people are pretty dug in, even if they are paying more attention, or are just forced into not finding a place to get away from the politics of everything right now.

Mauk We're going to keep following it all from a safe distance, of course, and Holly and Rob, stay cool and I'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.

What are "Montana Values"?

Every campaign season, we hear a lot about “Montana Values.” Things like liberty, opportunity, and love of public land. Ideas that supposedly define Montanans. But when elections come around, that language seems to do just as much to drive people apart.

For our elections coverage, our news team wants to know what values matter to you, and how candidates are talking about them in the run up to November. What do you think of when you hear “Montana Values” - and why?

Call us at 406-640-8933 and leave a message to share your thoughts.

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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