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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Beat: It's Going To Be A Squeaker

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

If a new poll is correct, it's going to be a suspenseful election night in Montana. Fundraising in the Senate race is off the charts. The Senate candidates take turns accusing each other of being a party hack. The Missoulian newspaper tries to clean up a mess over a controversial endorsement. A new ad in the House race features a talking elk. And candidates in the the state auditor's race try to gain some voter attention

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

Sally Mauk A new poll out this week from David Parker's crew at MSU shows what we've all suspected, and that is election night is going to be suspenseful. All the top races are close and within the margin of error.

Holly Michels, Yeah, looking at the Senate race, biggest race, I think, in the state right now, it's similar to what you and Rob talked about last week with previous polls. You said it shows a really tight race within the margin of error; statistically tied. It's got Bullock 49 percent to Daines at 47. But basically a tie there. Same with the House race. It's got Rosendale up over Williams, 48 percent to 46 percent. Also within the margin of error. Governor's race between Lieutenant Governor Democrat Mike Cooney and Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte. That has the biggest distance between candidates that we see, also mirrors other polling we've seen for that race. It's got Gianforte 47 percent to 42 for Cooney, about seven percent of respondents undecided. So that's still within the margin of error, a little more distance there.

Generally this poll shows Bullock and Williams are locking down Democrat support and picking up about eight percent of Republicans. Independents are breaking toward Bullock at 67 percent, which could be significant. Little less so for Williams at 59 percent, but still could be significant.

But as this poll points out there are just a higher number of Republicans overall in Montana. Daines, Gianforte and Rosendale are all also up among older voters. Well Cooney, Bullock, Williams are getting their strongest support from younger people who are less likely to vote, as the poll points out. So what age demographic really shows up at the polls might have a big say in these races.

Sally Mauk The closeness of the Senate race, Holly has prompted an unprecedented amount of campaign spending. That's not just breaking, but smashing all previous records. I think it's in the hundreds of millions right now.

Holly Michels, Yeah, it is a lot of money. The Associated Press had a report out this week showing that estimates show about $146 million in spending. Bullock had a finance report for his third quarter this week. He brought in $26.8 million, which just shatters records for contributions to a candidate.

To kind of put that into context, Tester and Rosendale combined in 2018 -- which that Senate race at the time was the most expensive in state history -- they didn't get as many direct contributions total as Bullock did just in this last quarter. Daines raised about $11.5 million, which would normally be a really, really good quarter, but not even half of what Bullock brought in.

I'm pretty curious to see, Bullock's report hasn't been filed with the Federal Election Commission website yet. But how many contributions came in after the death of Justice Ginsburg and over ActBlue, a fundraising platform used by Democratic candidates? We've seen national reporting show that other Democratic candidates across the country have had huge quarters, in part because of those factors. And, you know, like we talked about, what candidates raise is just a part of the picture. That $146 million figure expected to be spent on this race is pretty staggering. And I think anybody who's turned on TV or open the mailbox recently has a pretty good idea where that money is going.

Sally Mauk Rob, Bullock and Daines recently held their last debate on the MTN network and they had lots of testy exchanges. My overall impression is that Sen. Daines wanted to be on the attack, but that Gov. Bullock was ready for him this time.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I basically agree Sally. This was, I think, by far the most aggressive of the debates, particularly for Daines. Daines, you know, is just a good debater in terms of performance and delivery. And I don't think that's ever been Bullock's greatest area of strength, although he has improved a lot since his first run for governor eight years ago.

Although one thing that really did stand out to me in this debate, and something that I haven't necessarily noticed from Daines in the past, is that he seemed just a little bit more angry this time. And it may be, as you and Holly were just talking about, that for the first time in his campaigns he recognizes that he is in some trouble and that he's worried about it. So it struck me that Daines just had a little bit of an edge to him the other night, as good as he is on the delivery. And Bullock came off as having just a little bit of a lighter touch, seemed a little bit more comfortable. He was smiling more and things like that.

Sally Mauk Here's one of the exchanges over which of the two is most likely to be a party hack and not stand up for Montana.

[Steve Bullock] "Senator, you know that I'll stand up to anyone if it jeopardizes the Montana way of life. Unlike you, it's 95% of the time you've been with Mitch McConnell. Montanans want a leader. Not a lapdog, and that's what they've got now."

[Steve Daines] "Well, some more bull from Steve Bullock there. Regarding the United States Postal Service, I've called the DeJoy. I was the lead Republican to get additional services and funding for the United States Postal Service in the COVID packages. So he's got that false. But I tell you what, talk about lapdogs, just remember who recruited Steve Bullock into this race is a guy named Chuck Schumer."

Sally Mauk And Rob, Sen. Daines always gets in his Schumer mention, but this time Bullock got in a Mitch McConnell mention.

Rob Saldin Yeah, well, Daines' line there, a cute line, well delivered. And yeah, it was interesting that Steve Bullock took it national with a reference to McConnell. You know, it's Daines usually who is the one who's very eager to nationalize the campaign to make it a referendum on Schumer and the national Democratic leadership. He's been the one who's wanted to take it national and not have it come down to a simple contest between him and Bullock. And for his part, Bullock has tended to want to keep Schumer and the national party at arm's length, and he continued to try to do so in this debate. But I don't remember him quite as clearly trying to associate Daines with the National Republican Party. So that was interesting.

You know, just a couple other things that stood out to me when the topic was health care; Bullock just continues to have an advantage and Daines seems on the defensive. And that's, I think, less about these two individuals. And it just is the partisan dynamic on that.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, the biggest political headline in Missoula this week was the Missoulian newspaper's endorsement of extremist Jennifer Fielder for a seat on the Public Service Commission. That endorsement led to the resignation of city editor Gwen Florio and such an outcry from subscribers that the paper the very next day changed its mind and endorsed Fielder's opponent, Monica Tranel. What a fiasco for the paper with, I think some regrettable consequences.

Holly Michels, Yeah, this is a hard one and hits pretty close to home for me. Gwen was my supervisor before she left the Missoulian. The issue, like you said, is over the endorsement of Fielder.She's a state lawmaker from Thompson Falls. And the initial endorsement did point out her affiliation with groups like the American Lands Council, her support of transferring management of federal lands to the state, Also affiliation with Western Property Owners group that invited members of the Bundy family to speak in Montana. Fielder are also spread rumors that had no truth to them whatsoever about members of antifa traveling to Missoula to bring violence to what were peaceful protests, Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year. Also important to point out that at those Missoula protests, there were armed people who were there doing what they said to guard against antifa. There was a black teenager who was actually detained by a white man in his 40s. The teen said afterward that individuals were trying to push a narrative about that he was a member of some sort of antifa group. So those rumors really weren't without consequences in the real world.

Like you said, there was really a swift backlash from this endorsement. Gwen Florio, she normally would have been a part of the editorial board that made this decision, but she wasn't a part of that board's interviews or endorsement process this year because she was filling in for me while I was out on medical leave. After the endorsement ran Gwen called the publisher and said she was resigning immediately. She told Rob Chaney a reporter at The Missoulian in a story the paper ran about the resignation that though she wasn't a part of the endorsement she is the main representative of the paper and couldn't stand by. She said what she objected to is Fielder's ties to militia and anti-government groups, which she had spent years reporting on.

Like you said, the paper did reverse the endorsement. The publisher wrote that the paper failed to give proper weight to Fielder's connections to these groups and rumors that she had spread. I think just one thing to make super clear for people to understand that reporters aren't involved in endorsements at all, you know, from the process of forming them at board, sitting down with candidates and writing them. There is a really hard line between those editorial pages and news stories, which not sure if people understand that division.

Sally Mauk And I think it's always important to make that clear that it had nothing to do with the news department at the Missoulian.

Rob in the House race, a PAC that supports Kathleen Williams, has a new radio ad spoken in the voice of an elk. Here's part of that ad.

[Talking elk] "I am and elk. It's been difficult these last few years. As an elk, Montana's always been my home. But now I feel it's slipping away."

[Narrator] "Wildlife throughout Montana are raising their voices about land development here in our state. And the name that's on everyone's lips: Matt Rosendale."

[Talking elk] "There's no telling how many tens of thousands of dollars Matt Rosendale's company has made on oil lease royalties from the Wilkes Brothers. Rosendale's a developer who wants to pave over our habitat."

Sally Mauk Rob, I'm pretty sure that's not how an elk sounds. And I'm also pretty sure Matt Rosendale doesn't want to pave over their habitat. This ad strikes me as really hokey and also very misleading.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I kind of agree. The line that caught me was a line that claimed that Rosendale pushed efforts to sell our public lands. And I don't think that's quite right. Now, to be sure, it's definitely true that in the past Rosendale has supported transferring public lands to the states. That would presumably include Forest Service and BLM land. And many critics definitely argue that transfers of that sort are going to inevitably lead to states eventually being forced to sell those lands because they don't have the resources to manage them. But still, I'm not aware of Rosendale specifically advocating that they be sold, which is definitely a step much farther out to the fringe than just advocating transfer, however controversial that may be. But moreover, and maybe more importantly, Rosendale has been clear during this campaign that he no longer supports transferring public lands to the states. So the whole thing seems like a bit of a stretch. I think it would have been entirely fair for the ad to say something like, 'look, based on his record, we don't trust Rosendale,' or 'Kathleen Williams has a better record on public lands than Rosendale.' But again, the ad is a bit of a stretch.

Sally Mauk Holly in the state auditors race between Troy Downing and Shane Morigeau, Marigeau has this new TV ad.

[Shane Morigeau] "My opponent's not from Montana. He's from San Diego. That's why he couldn't get a hunting license here. Wasn't a problem for me. In Helena, I worked with both parties to protect Montana's way of life. And as auditor, I'll work to protect health care for folks with preexisting conditions, crack down on short term junk insurance and investment fraud so that you can enjoy what really matters."

Sally Mauk This ad, Holly, has Morigeau shooting a bow, dragging a deer carcass out of pickup bed and digging fencepost holes. And it's also a not subtle dig at his opponent, Troy Downing's, previous fine for trying to get a resident hunting license when he wasn't a legal resident of Montana.

Holly Michels, Yeah, I think it's a pretty clever ad and pretty fun. It's, you know, lighthearted compared to a lot of what we're seeing on the airwaves, and does a good job, like you said, of showing Morigeau as this authentic Montanans, which is, I think, a lot of what we see candidates strive to do cycle after cycle.

Morigeau is a state legislator from a Missoula, and he's really focused his campaign about wanting to be a watchdog to make sure insurance companies aren't taking advantage of people.

Downing, for his part, he is a businessman. He lives down in the Gallatin County area. He has a business of insuring storage units. So he has tried to talk about -- and also a history of investments, that sort of stuff -- that he's got experience and familiarity with the industry that the state auditor would be overseeing.

I think that both candidates probably don't have great name recognition. Downing was in the 2018 Republican Senate primary. Morigeau was a pretty prominent Democratic member of the state House. But I think ads like this helped. Downing also put a lot of money into the race, so we'll see how it goes. But I think these 'tier-b' races just don't get a lot of attention.

Sally Mauk Since ballots were mailed out last week I think almost 12 percent of voters have already voted, but there's still plenty of time for people to do that, and plenty of campaign ads to make us smile or gag.

Holly Rob. Thanks. 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.

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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