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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Beat: Mail Voting, Debates And Republicans For Biden

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

The Trump campaign attempt to derail all-mail voting in Montana is shut down in court. Montana's U.S. Senate candidate hold a spirited but civil debate. President Trump's widely denounced debate behavior — and his COVID diagnosis — may throw a wrench into down ballot races. AARP wishes candidates would stop using them in their campaign ads. House candidate Kathleen Williams tries to be coy about her pick for president. And former governor and lifelong Republican, Marc Racicot, says Biden is the right pick for president.

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

Sally Mauk Holly, Gov. Steve Bullock won another court battle this week when District Judge Dana Christensen ruled that Bullock's decision allowing Montana counties to hold all mail balloting this election will stand. Donald Trump's campaign and several Republican groups had sued, arguing it would lead to widespread voter fraud. But the judge basically said that's a bunch of nonsense since they couldn't point to even one instance of voter fraud in the last 20 years in Montana.

Holly Michels Yeah, like you said, there were these two different lawsuits that got consolidated into one brought by several Republican groups, including Trump's reelection campaign. And the main focus was they were saying mail ballots, they claim, were more susceptible to voter fraud. It's a claim we've heard the president make several times, including in Tuesday night's debate. But like you said, Judge Christensen really pressed attorneys at the hearing for these cases to show any evidence of voter fraud in Montana. And lawyers for these Republican groups were forced to say that there's no evidence over the last two decades of this even looking back just at the June primary where every county in the state chose to hold the election mostly by mail. Voters in Montana have been increasingly choosing to vote by mail even before the pandemic. More than 70 percent did so in 2018. And for this November's election, 45 of the counties in the state are going to hold the election mostly by mail, but you can still vote in person in those counties. Christensen said that that lack of election fraud — of any evidence of that in Montana — shows it's really highly unlikely to happen in the November election and that voters should feel comfort knowing elections here will be conducted freely and fairly.

Mauk And we should point out those ballots will be going out October 9, so coming right up.

Rob, Governor Bullock and Senator Steve Daines had a feisty but civil debate this week where I think they each scored points they wanted to make on everything from health care to the economy. Here's one exchange they had over Daines' previous experience working for Procter and Gamble in China.

[Bullock] "You've created more jobs in China than you ever have in Montana.

[Moderator] "Senator Daines, final word."

[Daines] "Well, he just lied. We didn't sell our software in China. We kept it out of China. He'll need to go back and look at the facts on that.

Mauk Rob, I think Daines is right to take offense at this attack by Bullock.

Rob Saldin Yes, Sally. I mean, the basic charge that Daines is somehow responsible for the outsourcing of jobs to China; yeah, that's a little bit of a stretch. I'm also a little skeptical that voters are able to follow all the ins and outs on China and what Steve Daines was doing over there.

But the thing that could maybe stick is the broader message that the Bullock campaign is pushing, that Daines is a hypocrite. That's a part of the issue with China, that Daines is now all of a sudden pantomiming tough talk on China after having had this longstanding, cozy relationship with China. And even if the specific details on all that are a little hard for your average voter to track, it does dovetail with other things the Bullock campaign is pointing out, like Daines being all over the map on public lands and whether a Supreme Court nominee should get a vote in an election year and so on. So taken cumulatively, this attempt to define Daines as basically a shameless hypocrite, that could potentially sink in, even if the specifics on China are a little hazy.

Mauk At another point in the debate, Daines came back with this challenge to Bullock.

[Daines] "I would challenge Steve Bullock to bring your vice president candidate, Kamala Harris, out to Montana. I'll pay for the plane ticket."

[Bullock] "I'm glad that you needed the vice president to come out for your campaign. I campaign with regular Montanans."

Mauk Bullock is referring there to Vice President Mike Pence's recent appearance with Daines at a rally in Belgrade, Rob.

Saldin Yeah, exactly. And it shows you that Republicans are very eager to have the national luminaries of the party here in Montana and Democrats aren't. So that tells you something about where Montana stands. But, you know, I think it also reflects Republican efforts to turn Harris into a new hate figure on the right. Clearly, Republicans wanted someone other than Joe Biden to win the presidential nomination, because he's a moderate. He's a likable guy. And it's just hard to make people scared of Biden. So we're hearing more about Harris, along with the old classics, you know, Pelosi, Schumer, AOC and so on. And that's what Daines is drawing on here with the reference to Harris. Obviously, we don't expect Harris to make an appearance.

Mauk I'm not expecting her to show up in Montana at all.

Speaking of civil debates, Rob, the recent presidential debate was anything but. Trump's behavior at that debate has been roundly and rightfully criticized by both Democrats and Republicans. Do you think the president's behavior at that debate has any down ballot impact on, for example, Montana Senate race?

Saldin Well, maybe a little. It's hard to tell yet. You know, the story of the presidential campaign is how little anything has affected it. Biden has never once trailed Trump in the polling. He's maintained a very steady five to eight point lead for as long as pollsters have been asking about this. And the early indications coming out of the debate are that Americans saw it as a national disgrace, as you say, and that Trump is getting most of the blame for that. So there might be a little bit of a trickle down to the benefit of Democratic candidates, and maybe especially so in cases where the Republican is so tightly associated with Trump as Daines is. But so many people are already locked in. I doubt that it would be much of a dramatic shift. And of course, now with Trump testing positive for COVID-19, attention has shifted off the debate. So these things just change so quickly. And I think we've kind of moved on to a new topic.

Mauk Holly, AARP is mad at Senator Daines for implying in a recent ad that their organization is endorsing him. Here's that ad:

[Woman speaking] "In the past five years I've had eight surgeries. I know how expensive prescription drugs can be. And that's why I won't support Steve Bullock. Bullock raised millions from big pharma. Then he vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have lowered prescription drug costs. I'm with Steve Daines. He's taking on big pharma to lower prescription drug prices and his plan is endorsed by AARP.

Mauk Holly, this ad is just flat-out wrong. AARP does not endorse Daines. In fact, they remain nonpartisan.

Michels Yeah, AARP sent out actually two press releases this week, one about the Daines campaign ad that you just mentioned and a second about the Democratic Attorneys General Association also ran an ad that used the AARP logo and implied AARP endorsement. Like you said, AARP said the use of their name and their logo were not authorized. This is an organization that's a nonpartisan group. It doesn't support, oppose or endorse candidates. It doesn't make political contributions. And so it really took offense to this, their logo and name being used in the ad. I've seen the Daines ad. It looks like a trimmed version of that that removes the AARP part is now posted on social media. And AARP did endorse this bill that Daines proposed in 2019 that was targeting prescription drug costs. But that's much different than endorsing a candidate. So, they want to make very clear they're not associated with that. We see issues like this with political ads and claims every cycle. And it's something that happens, but pretty aggressive with AARP saying this is not something we endorsed or condone on these two specific ads.

Mauk Rob, in a recent U.S. House debate, Democrat Kathleen Williams was asked if she was voting for Trump or Biden. She dodged the answer. Then the next day, Biden endorsed her. I mean, does anyone in Montana believe Williams would not vote for Biden? I find it very odd she felt she couldn't state the obvious.

Saldin Yeah. No one believes that. You know, overall, I did think Williams had a better debate in this MTN debate than she did in the first one. But, yeah, her refusal to say who she was going to vote for, it just seemed odd.

You know, clearly, this is part of a broader effort on her part to establish some distance between herself and the national Democratic Party. And we see that a number of ways. I mean, her policy positions and in the way she's let everyone know that she voted for Reagan decades ago. And in fact, I do think it's pretty clear that if she wins, she would be well to the right of your average Democratic member of Congress. But exactly, Sally. I mean, does anyone really believe that she might not vote for Biden? It just seems implausible. And her exchange with Mike Dennison on that, I thought came off as pretty awkward. And, of course, all the more so the very next day when Biden issued his endorsement of her.

Mauk Meanwhile, the national analyst Larry Sabato has upgraded that House race from likely Republican to leans Republican. So that is encouraging news for the Williams campaign.

Saldin It is. I think that's largely based on that New York Times Siena poll that came out, what, a week or 10 days ago showing her up three. Now, it only showed her at 44 percent. She has a long way to go to get up to 50 percent. But still, she was ahead. And I think that's why Larry Sabato made that adjustment.

Mauk Holly former governor Mark Racicot, who is also the former chair of the Republican National Committee, this week endorsed Biden for president, basically saying Trump doesn't have good character. I'm not sure how, if at all, this might affect Montana voters. What do you think?

Michels I don't know if it affects voters very much. Like you said, you know, he talked more about concerns with Trump's character, didn't have really any specific praise for Biden. You know, this does follow former Republican Secretary of State Montana and former State Senate President Bob Brown earlier this year also saying he wouldn't vote for Trump. And we've seen now six of the last RNC chairs that held that position before Trump say that they were going to vote for Biden. But we're not see any current elected officials or those running for office, defecting. You're still seeing Senator Daines be very close with President Trump. He brought vice president Mike Pence out to campaign in Montana. So really no shift there. I think people who are maybe already on the fence about voting for Trump might take this under consideration. But otherwise, I don't think it has much of an effect on how people will vote. And if you look at the news cycle right now, too, I don't know if this has much staying power in people's minds. So, just, I don't know if it changes too much.

Saldin I just say that Racicot, you know, he's been off the scene for a long time. He's kept a very low profile, but he was extraordinarily popular. And Holly, as you suggest, I mean, I think the way that it could have maybe a little bit of impact is for some of those people who were wavering. And it could be the kind of thing that sets up a permission structure that allows some of these wavering Republicans to point to and use that as a justification for voting against the president.

Mauk To say this has been a week full of political news is an understatement. We'll see what the coming week brings. And till then, Holly and Rob, 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.

Listen now: Shared State

Montana’s 2020 election will be among the most contentious and closely watched in the country. The neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race could swing control of the “world’s most deliberative body.” The governor’s race, which Republicans haven’t controlled since 2004, is likely to be just as hard-fought, with a two-term Democrat leaving office in a state that voted for Donald Trump by 20 points the last election.

But beneath the headlines, deeper issues are at play. Learn more about them with Shared State, a new series from Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio about the hidden values driving Montana’s 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.

Tune in on Montana Public Radio Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. Listen at our website or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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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