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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Campaign Beat: Rich Candidates And Poor Coronavirus Plans

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

Greg Gianforte writes himself another big check in the governor race. Neither candidate for that office wants to answer hard questions about dealing with the pandemic. And both our gubernatorial and Senate races are getting plenty of national attention.

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

Sally Mauk Greg Gianforte has dumped another $4 million of his own money into his campaign for governor, bringing the total, I think, he's spent out of his own pocket to over $7.5 million. Those are eye popping numbers. But he's rich and he can afford it.

Rob Saldin Well, he certainly can afford it. And money, as we know, is important. You know, that said, I'm not sure it's a great look right here at the end of the campaign. And that's because it reinforces all of the negative characterizations about Gianforte that Democrats have spent five years highlighting. You know, that he's a New Jersey millionaire carpetbagger. He's trying to buy the governor's office and so on. The bottom line of all that messaging is he's not like us and you can't trust this guy. And I guess my concern, if you're in the Gianforte camp, is that this late dump of cash just reinforces all of that. It leads the news cycle for several days and it serves up on a silver platter a great closing argument for the Cooney campaign, and one that Cooney has been happily taking advantage of.

Sally Mauk As you say, Gianforte's opponent Mike Cooney is going to make as much hay as he can off of Gianforte's personal campaign contributions. Here's a new ad from Cooney.

[Cooney Ad]: "Every election is a choice. Greg Gianforte is a multi-millionaire from New Jersey, and acts like one. He's trying to buy this election. He's sued to block access to our public lands, supports a lawsuit to rip away your health insurance. Lawsuits. You just can't trust a guy like that. Unlike Greg, I'll fight like hell to protect your health care, defend public lands and oppose a sales tax. I'm Mike Cooney. And you'll always know where I stand: with you."

Sally Mauk Rob, this ad is no frills. This is just Cooney, talking straight into the camera. And I think it's actually one of his most effective ads.

Rob Saldin I think it's pretty effective to Sally. You know, Gianforte remains the least popular major politician in the state. And this ad, I think, is more than anything an attempt to remind Montanans why they've been a little skeptical of him up till now. And I do think if you're Gianforte, you know, you're inviting this kind of thing when you drop $4 million. And so that is a tradeoff that they must have decided was worth it. But still, it suggests, I think, that the Gianforte camp has to be at least a little concerned.

As you noted earlier, Sally, Gianforte is a wealthy guy, but still $4 million is $4 million. And I doubt he'd just idly throw that away if he felt totally confident that this thing was in the bag. You know, I would note also that there is, you know, arguably some evidence that the race might be tightening a little. You know, in the last week or so, we've had three public polls showing Gianforte up by five [percentage points] and then seven [percentage points] and then one that just dropped from The New York Times, which is considered one of the very best polls out there, that shows Gianforte up by just four [percentage points]. Now, that said, there hasn't yet been any poll in the entire cycle showing Cooney ahead. So I think you'd much rather be in Gianforte's position right now than in Cooney's. But nearly all of these polls have been within the margin of error. And again, the most recent one has to be encouraging if you're Cooney.

Sally Mauk Holly, you reported recently on Cooney and Gianforte's plans, or lack thereof, for how they will deal with the pandemic if elected. And there's no question the next governor will have to deal with it, as it's getting worse every day.

Holly Michels Case growth is just increasing exponentially in Montana. Winter's probably not likely to help us. People are going to be spending a lot more time indoors. The federal money Montanans got from the Cares Act has to be spent by the year end. We're going to be facing a really tight budget coming into the next session. And although we do have a presidential election, obviously, in November, which may or may not bring a change of administration, so much of coronavirus response has really fallen to states, specifically governors, to do things like get their residents personal protective equipment, ensure medical supplies and more. So, whoever the next governor is, odds are they're going to have to continue really hands on coronavirus management day to day from the minute they step into office.

Sally Mauk Saying 'we have to protect the most vulnerable,' without saying how, isn't very helpful, it seems to me. And whatever Montana is doing now, it's not working well enough. So it seems to me, Holly, that both Cooney and Gianforte are avoiding answering hard questions about the pandemic; like what are you going to do if the hospitals are overwhelmed. Or, are you willing to take more drastic measures. Neither of them are directly answering those tough questions that they may face if they're elected.

Holly Michels Yeah. Cooney put out a plan earlier this week. But like you're saying, it's fairly broad strokes. There's some really specific little details like using Montana National Guard members to transport sick people if needed. But generally, it read to me like they just want to continue the work of the administration he's a part of now. But like you said, no really granular details, ideas about making sure hospitals and other frontline workers have PPE, things like that, but not saying actually how that would be accomplished.

On Gianforte's side, when he talks about responding to the coronavirus, it's much more heavily focused on the economy. He has said — again, very broad strokes — he would work to keep the most vulnerable safe, but hasn't really said how that would be accomplished. He hasn't really talked about restrictions he might put into place if governor, like continuing the mask mandate or some of the directives we have in place right now that limit capacity at bars and restaurants. Gianforte said the reasons that he doesn't have specifics is that it's hard to say what the COVID situation will look like in January.

Kaiser Health News had a story this week taking a national look, and kind of finding the same thing across the country: that pretty few governor candidates are really talking about anything beyond just very high-level plans of how they would respond to COVID if elected. And I do think that lack of specific detail isn't specific just to campaigns. All summer, reporters like me were asking if there were any sort of metrics that would trigger another stay at home order, things like that. And there just hasn't been that sort of clarity.

Sally Mauk Rob, Montana's election is getting more and more national attention. The Washington Post did a story recently about the governor's race, and The New Yorker magazine had a lengthy article about the Senate race.

Rob Saldin Yeah, for sure. You know, no surprise that the Senate race is getting so much attention. It's super close, it's attracted crazy amounts of money and it's a heavyweight showdown featuring two of the state's three most prominent politicians, so that's always going to be an attractive story.

By contrast, the governor's race doesn't appear to be quite as much of a white-knuckler as the Senate, or for that matter, the House. But there are a couple other things driving some of this national attention. I think, first, is that even if Gianforte does have an advantage, this is still the most competitive governor's race in the country. There are only 11 governors seats up this cycle, and most of those are just total snoozers. So that all just means that national media outlets and journalists who want to have at least some coverage of governors' races, you know, they scan the ones that are up this year, and Montana looks pretty interesting relative to the others.

Sally Mauk Holly, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was in Montana recently stumping for Senator Daines. Here's a sample of her campaign message.

[Nikki Haley] "The Democratic Party is not your grandparents Democrat Party anymore. It gotten as progressive and liberal as we've ever seen. This election is about whether we continue along captialism or we slip our way down to socialism."

Sally Mauk I have a feeling Holly that Haley is making that same speech around the country for various Republican candidates, not just Senator Daines.

Holly Michels I think, like we've talked about with this entire race — and this is really bringing this home, this closing message in the final weeks here — Daines' argument, which Haley is articulating, that if elected to Senate, Bullock would turn into this far left Democrat. I don't think we've ever seen a successful modern statewide Democratic candidate in Montana call for a move to socialism or total government run health care. But that's what Republicans and Daines and Haley here are trying to make Bullock out as, saying he would be just as far left as the most far left members of the party are in Congress. And we've heard Bullock refute that over and over, saying that Daines is running against him. You hear Daines a lot invoking Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. But I think where Bullock might have an advantage here is that voters do know him. So he is a well known entity in Montana. He did, you know, in his run for president last year, sort of shift a little bit trying to appeal to a national audience. So Daines is trying to capitalize on that. But it's not like Steve Bullock is a big mystery to Montana voters.

Sally Mauk Health care is also the focus of a new ad by Gov. Bullock. And here's part of that ad.

[Bullock ad voice montage]: In 2013 while I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer ... fighting off a lung infection ... chemotherapy and radiation ... while Senator Daines was voting to repeal protections for people with preexisting conditions ... with no replacement, with no lifeline.

[Steve Daines]: Today is the day when we will begin to repeal this disastrous law.

[ad]: Being in the fight of your life, to have somebody take away coverage for preexisting conditions is just simply criminal.

Sally Mauk Holly, as you said, Republicans are warning of socialism ruining your health care. And Democrats are warning of no coverage if you have a preexisting condition. Those are the two extremes that are being presented to voters.

Holly Michels I think you've heard Bullock really hammer, like Daines is, honing his message in the final weeks here. For Bullock, it's health care and specifically these protections within the Affordable Care Act for people with preexisting conditions. This ad flashes up five votes that Daines took in Congress that would have ended the ACA if those votes were to have been successful. Daines' counter [is] that he supports efforts to protect people with preexisting conditions. But there's absolutely nothing in place to do that if the ACA were to fall. And then you have President Trump, who Daines is a very aggressive supporter of, saying that he wants the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the ACA in a case they're going to hear the week after the election. So this puts Daines in a tough spot. I think it's pretty hard thing for him to defend. Pretty successful thing for Bullock to be running on.

Sally Mauk Lastly, Holly, the race for state school superintendent features the same two candidates who ran in 2016. Melissa Romano and now incumbent Elsie Arntzen. The difference this time, of course, is that Arntzen, for good or ill, has a record to defend.

Holly Michels There was a poll this week from NBC Montana and and Strategies 360 that shows Romano's up over Arntzen about 41 percent to 39 percent. That's a flip from 2016 when Arntzen won with 52 percent of the vote. So we're seeing a little bit of a different lean here. But with just one poll on a tier-b race like this, I don't know how much stock we can put in those results.

In some ways, this race is a little similar to four years ago. Romano and Arntzen are really sharply divided on this concept of 'school choice.' Arntzen has tried to walk a line to be careful in her public statements about support for private schools. But she's attended and spoken at rallies supporting private schools and school choice, which has been a real attack point for Romano, who said she'd be a really staunch defender of public school funding. Arntzen has in her four years said she's tried to depoliticize the office, which meant she's been fairly quiet at the Legislature even as, you know, in sessions like 2019 there was this huge debate over public preschool or some sort of public-private model. Romano's really saying that makes Arntzen a pretty weak advocate for the office and for public schools.

It's also been some controversy for Arntzen while she's in office. Early in her term she tried to say that there was this investigation into test data that the Democrat who was in office before her, Denise Juneau, had mishandled. But it turns out it was nowhere near as nefarious as what Arntzen was claiming. So she got some backlash for that. A person she hired had also gone after Juneau for her sexual orientation. So that was something that got Arntzen a lot of bad press. And then she's clashed with Governor Bullock quite a lot over the handling coronavirus in schools. And some schools, some educators, have expressed frustration with that.

Romano, for her part, her campaign hasn't been without problems. Last year, her husband pleaded guilty to felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs and had to resign from his teaching job. Romano addressed that pretty directly, saying she is the one for office and her husband's gotten treatment for his addiction.

So it is, you know, in some way, like you said, much different race from 2016 where a lot's happened that voters can look at. But still some common themes, I think, with same candidates as before.

Sally Mauk Over half of Montanans have already voted, and we're just a little less than two weeks out from Election Day. H.

Holly and Rob, thank you. And stay warm this weekend. I'll talk to you soon.

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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