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Campaign Beat: Abortion, Harassment And Big Money

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

The new governor will either uphold Montanans' access to legal abortion or restrict that access. New TV ads in the Senate race question, and defend Gov. Bullock's treatment of women. New polls in that race show contradictory results. And the two candidates for Secretary of State differ on whether Montanans should vote by mail.

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

Sally Mauk The two candidates for governor, Mike Cooney and Greg Gianforte had a debate this week that got pretty testy pretty fast. They both accused the other of lying about their records and then predicted dire consequences if their opponent wins.

Rob Saldin Yep, that's about right. You know, we actually got both of the gubernatorial debates within just a few days of one another. This week, I thought Cooney was especially strong in the first debate on MTN. In fact, I think that's probably the highlight of his campaign. The second one on MontanaPBS covered a lot of the same ground as first debate. For his part, I thought Gianforte did fine in both of them and he just kind of carried himself with that calm confidence of a candidate who thinks that he's going to win.

Mauk Probably the most heated exchange, Rob, came when they were asked about the possibility of a new Supreme Court justice leading to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and the end of legal abortion. Here's that exchange.

[Gianforte]: "The Cooney Bullock administration vetoed a bill that would have provided medical care to a baby born alive from a botched abortion. You heard me right. If a baby was born alive from a botched abortion, I think we should all be able to agree, that defenseless little baby should get medical care. The Cooney Bullock administration vetoed that bill. I would have signed that bill. I am pro-life. He is not only pro-abortion, apparently he is pro infanticide as well. And that is just not a Montana value."

[Cooney]: "Oh, Greg, that's over the top. You know, I'm just gonna tell you right now, I support a woman's right to make her most personal health care decisions. What you just described, you know, does not happen in Montana. It does not happen. Greg, you are not telling the truth. You are just playing on people's emotions. And that is just wrong. You know, you're running for governor of the state of Montana, you need to lead by example. You don't want to do that. You're willing to say whatever it takes to try to get yourself elected."

Mauk So Rob, the bill they're talking about was vetoed by Governor Bullock, who argued federal law already covers their concerns. And the exchange, I think, reinforces the assumption that Gianforte, if elected, would sign bills seeking to limit abortion in Montana. I think that was pretty clear.

Saldin Oh, for sure. And he himself made that very clear. You know, strip aside the rhetoric and the accusations, Gianforte put it very directly. He made the key point. There's a big difference between a pro-life candidate like himself and a pro-choice candidate like Cooney. And even leaving aside a scenario in which the Supreme Court overturns Roe, which would kick abortion back to the states to deal with, even leaving that aside, it matters a great deal who's governor. Because even with Roe intact, there's still plenty of space for the Legislature to enact new restrictions on abortion. And in fact, we don't have to just imagine that kind of scenario, as you suggest, Sally. I mean, we've seen that play out in recent legislative sessions. Bullock has vetoed several abortion bills that were passed by the Legislature. And there's no doubt that a governor Gianforte would've signed those. And since the primaries last spring, we haven't talked all that much about the Legislature. But there is every reason to think that Republicans will, again, have large majorities in the statehouse come January. So I expect those same bills to be back. And of course, there's always the possibility of more, especially if pro-life legislators know that they've got an ally in the governor's office. So bottom line, Gianforte would sign those bills. Cooney would veto them.

Mauk Holly, in the Senate race, both Steve Bullock and a PAC supporting Steve Daines have a bunch of new TV ads on the air, including a couple that focus on Bullock's treatment of women. Here's the Daines ad.

[Narrator] "We know Steve Bullock used his position to help his friends and family make money. But there's a darker side. Bullock's most senior political aide was caught sexually harassing women. Bullock knew about the harassment, but said nothing, remaining silent when the aide took another job where he harassed women again. Steve Bullock covered for his friend at the expense of these women. Think about that."

Mauk This ad, Holly, refers to Bullock's former aide, Kevin O'Brien, who went to work for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and got caught for a second time sexually harassing women. De Blasio chastised Bullock for not warning him about O'Brien, and Bullock eventually apologized.

But like you said this is talking about Kevin O'Brien. He worked with Bullock back when he was Attorney General, on his 2012 governor campaign, then was deputy chief of staff for Bullock when he was governor in 2013. Then in 2015, Bullock made O'Brien his representative when Bullock was chair of the Democratic Governors Association. That's where O'Brian was first accused of sexual harassment, and after an investigation into those claims, he was fired in 2015. Later, like you said, hired by Bill de Blasio. Bullock knew about the reason O'Brien was fired from the DGA in 2015, but did not tell de Blasio about that before O'Brien was hired. Bullock, in interviews after this news broke, with reporters and with editorial boards, did say that he didn't do enough to protect women after he found out O'Brien had been hired by de Blasio, which she said he learned about after the hire they made. But Bullock did say pretty clearly he could have done more to protect woman. So it does open him up to these attacks.

Mauk Here's the Bullock ad responding to the charge he doesn't treat women well.

[Narrator] "If out of state secret money groups want to talk about how Steve Bullock ran his office, they should have talked to me or any Montana woman who actually worked there. Because Steve Bullock took unprecedented action to make Montana women safer in the workplace with mandatory sexual harassment training for every state employee. Governor Bullock ended secret settlements. If you harass women, you will be held accountable. Steve Bullock wouldn't tolerate anything like that for one second. That's the real record."

Mauk This ad Holly ad features women who have worked for Governor Bullock.

Michels It does. And I think it kind of makes an interesting point. To me, you know, Bullock here, he has women who work for him now and who have in the past saying that, you know, he wouldn't tolerate harassment. It gets interesting if you look at this compared to that we just heard from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, you know, at the top of the Republican ticket you've got President Trump, a candidate who's been accused of sexual harassment by more than two dozen women. Remember back in 2016, in October that year when news of the Access Hollywood tape where you can hear the president talk about sexually assaulting woman, you know, seemed at that time that could be a candidacy ender. We all saw how that turned out. I think it's interesting, you know, Bullock is running this ad in response. We hear from woman who worked for him saying he doesn't tolerate harassment. You know, defending his own record, not pointing out the issues with Trump.

Mauk A local TV station, Holly, also did a story recently that featured state school superintendent Elsie Arntzen accusing Governor Bullock of discriminating against her because she's a woman. And as we've talked about before, Arntzen and Bullock have had a running feud. But I don't think Arntzen is necessarily viewed as an avatar of feminism Holly.

Michels This story, I think, like you say, is reporting on unsubstantiated claims and issues that haven't risen to formal complaints. But it does include this claim from Arntzen, who is suggesting that Bullock doesn't like working with women. Important to point out Arntzen, Republican, is seeking reelection this year. Her and Bullock have had some clashes over her handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But even within this story, you know, it says that when pressed, Arntzen said that the governor's never said anything in her presence that would lead her to believe he doesn't like working with women, but she still questions it. So, kind of, this story seems to be throwing some rumors around with some things that superintendent of public instruction has suggested. And, you know, I think, you know, we see this story on social media. Republicans, you know, the same group that ran that first ad is push this story out, trying to sort of further their message. But I think it's a story that doesn't have a lot of actual facts or verified things backing it up.

Mauk Speaking of TV ads, Rob, our Senate race is breaking all campaign spending records. And that money has apparently paid for more ads than any Senate race in the country this election season.

Saldin I believe it. Yeah, that's a rather dubious distinction. But we're number one when it comes to TV ads for a Senate campaign. You know, it's just another indication, you know, if you follow the money, another indication that everyone is expecting this one to be really close.

Mauk Well, what do you make of recent polls? Rob showing Trump slipping in Montana, and conflicting polls showing Senator Daines ahead in the Senate race by a healthy margin? And another poll that shows Governor Bullock ahead by a point. It does seem like we're getting some conflicting information in these recent polls.

Saldin Yeah, well, we sure are. You know, the one I think that has maybe got the most attention is this one out this week from Emerson, which is one that I'm just pretty skeptical of. All the polling that we've seen out there on that Senate race, and the other ones, for that matter, it's all been very steady and consistent. On the Senate all the polling has shown the race within the margin of error, meaning that from a statistical standpoint, it's a tie. So this Emerson one was very much out of keeping with that. And those results weren't just an issue with the Senate, they also had Gianforte up 12 and Trump up 13 in Montana. And those are just a very different story than everything else we've seen up to this point. And again, I'm just skeptical that this Emerson poll is capturing a real swing towards Republican candidates. And that's because if you look at all the national polling over the last 10 days or so, it's shown the exact opposite. That since that first presidential debate, the bottom has fallen out for Trump in particular and to a lesser extent for Republicans in general. Now, I suppose it's possible that Montana is bucking that trend and driving hard in the opposite direction. But that's just not the way that these things usually work. We'll need to see more polling data to know for sure. And I do think that we'll be getting at least one reliable poll in the next week that will provide more clarity.

Mauk Holly, the two candidates for secretary of state, Republican Christi Jacobsen and Democrat Bryce Bennett offer another real contrast in a race. They disagree over mail voting, with Jacobsen opposed to it and Bennett in favor. And they also disagree over whether voters should be able to register online. That's something Bennett favors as well. Here's what he said.

[Bennett] "My record is about making sure that our elections have the highest integrity, because I know that Montanans expect that."

Mauk But Jacobsen opposes online voter registration. Here's what she said.

[Jacobsen] "We need to keep Montana special and not turning it into California or Colorado."

Mauk It's clear Holly these two candidates would run the secretary of state's office very differently and would be very different top election officers in the state.

Michels This is one of the few times in the debate they had a few weeks back where they got into issues and differences that felt really related to the secretary of state's office. Jacobsen, like we heard, was critical of Bennett for supporting both the option for counties to hold the June and November votes this year mostly by mail because of the pandemic. And she was critical of the idea of online voter registration, saying that she doesn't believe it's worked well in other states.

Bennett said he's open to tools like that because he believes it would help expand access to voting. And he also said that Montanans this year shouldn't be put in a position to have to choose between their health and the opportunity to vote. We also heard in this debate, you know, Bennett went after Jacobsen trying to tie a lot of the problems that have plagued the current secretary of state's office where Jacobsen is now a deputy. Those include high profile things like errors in a voter guide from 2018 that cost more than a quarter of a million dollars to fix. There is also the current secretary of state's misuse of a state owned pickup. They also talked about claims of nepotism related to members of Jacobsen's family who's been hired at the office. That's something that was flagged in a legislative audit. Jacobsen, for her part, tried to play up what she said had been successes of the office, like reducing the size of the staff, cutting office rental space cost and moving business registration online.

She also attacked Bennett for things, she called him anti-gun and anti-life and said he supported defunding the police, which Bennett said wasn't true. Those attacks really aren't about anything directly related to the secretary of state's office, but more, we talked about this a lot this cycle, Republicans trying to play up Democrats as being this idea of too liberal.

Mauk Well, just a reminder to everyone that ballots are being mailed out today. So voting is beginning in earnest. And Holly and Rob, I'll talk to you again soon. 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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