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The politics of the Ukraine invasion and Afghan refugees; How much do endorsements matter?

Montana political leaders issued statements about the invasion of Ukraine, and some of them sound like politics-as-usual. Rep. Rosendale again speaks out against resettlement of Afghan refugees. A proposal for a special session to redraw PSC boundaries is dead. And how much do endorsements matter?

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center fellow Rob Saldin. Sitting in this week for Holly is Lee's deputy bureau chief Tom Kuglin.

Sally Mauk Tom, the biggest headline this week, of course, is Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and political leaders around the U.S., including in Montana, are responding with statements about the invasion, and some of those statements are what you would expect, but not all. Review for us what Montana's governor and congressional delegation have said.

Tom Kuglin So, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine this week began, Montana's congressional delegation and the governor all released statements weighing in on the assault led by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Democratic Senator Jon Tester, as you'd probably expect, said Putin single handedly started an unprovoked war, and called the invasion illegal. He added that the U.S. would stand with NATO and other European allies.

Montana's congressional Republicans also weighed-in on the invasion, but included some blame and criticism of President Joe Biden. Daines called Putin a "thug," but then went on to accuse Biden of emboldening and empowering him for lifting sanctions on Russia's Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. He juxtaposed that to Biden's cancelation of permits for the now dead Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in the U.S..

Fellow Republican Matt Rosendale's statement opposed sending troops into the conflict, saying cries from war hawks on both sides of the aisle continue to grow louder to spill American blood and treasure. But then he went on to say that the U.S. has no legal or moral obligation to get involved. He also said that Montanans are more concerned with immigration at the U.S.'s southern border than the conflict in Ukraine.

And then Governor Greg Gianforte also released his statement. He prayed for the safety of Ukrainian people and encouraged the U.S. and allies to invoke sweeping sanctions against Russia.

Sally Mauk Rob you have to wonder if Representative Rosendale has taken any European history courses, right?

Rob Saldin Well, his statement did stand out to me, Sally. You know, I do think the reactions from the Republicans are more notable than those from the Democrats because the GOP is internally divided on this and because some Republicans are reacting to this kind of as a politics-as-usual type of event. You know, traditionally, when a foreign policy crisis breaks out, politicians tend to dial back the partisanship a bit and voice support for the president and American principles, this kind of thing. And to the extent that people do voice criticism, it tends to be constructive criticism. But on this Ukraine situation, you've got some, notably former President Trump, voicing support for Putin. One step removed from that. We see other Republicans effectively not picking one side or the other and simply using this as another way to attack Biden, albeit either as weak and feckless or as a warmonger. And then you've got some Republicans voicing, I think, what would have been considered quite normal several years ago, condemning Putin, making it clear we're on the side of democracy and against authoritarians.

So for the Montana Republicans, Rosendale obviously comes closest to the Trump position, though he's not exactly cheering for Putin, his position is more one of neutrality and morality combined with, Tom, as you note, this kind of odd assertion about war hawks looking to send American troops to die in Europe. That seems like a bit of a straw man, as I'm not aware of anyone calling for American boots on the ground in Ukraine.

Daines' statement, by contrast, again, as Tom notes, it quickly condemns Putin, but then it pivots to these other things — Afghanistan and Keystone Pipeline. And those critiques aren't unreasonable on their own terms, but they also aren't constructive. Those are just the politics-as-usual stuff that would typically be left out of day one of a foreign policy crisis. Daines also makes that shout out against sending American troops to Ukraine, again, as though some are arguing that we should do that.

And then you've got Gianforte, whose statement, I think, is quite strong and very much in keeping with traditional norms. He makes it clear whose side we're on. We are opposed, he says, to the aggression of Russia and the authoritarian and illiberal regime in its effort to crush Ukraine, a struggling democracy. And of course, Gianforte's sentiments would have been all but universally embraced by Republicans just a number of years ago. But that's not necessarily the case now.

Sally Mauk Tom, Representative Rosendale's so-called America First policy also extends to his opposition to the settling of Afghan refugees in Montana and elsewhere in the country, and he's recently called for some, if not all, of them to be sent back.

Tom Kuglin Rosendale, in response to the Department of Defense Inspector General report, called for a number of Afghans identified in that report to be removed from the United States. The report found that federal agencies were not sharing all available data during the refugee vetting process. There's various reasons for that. The report also found that 31 of the 80,000 refugees were flagged for "derogatory information," which is information in agency speak that could be grounds to refuse entry.

In a statement, the congressman said "dangerous Afghan nationals now freely roam our country, completely unaccounted for. American citizens are in danger because of this administration's neglect and incompetence. These Afghans must be removed from the United States immediately."

Sally Mauk Rob, Rosendale's position on Afghan refugees appeals to his base, for sure.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I think it does. It also got him some national attention in the national press. And you know, I guess I just note the thing that stood out to me is that quite apart from the merits of the plan, Rosendale's statement was just a bit over the top. You know, the congressman says these refugees are going to be, "flooding our communities." But you know, we're actually only talking about 75 individuals, all of whom are going to be placed in Missoula. His stated concern, of course, is that they aren't properly vetted. The Biden administration assures us that they are. I guess one other thing that stood out to me about that whole episode is that Governor Gianforte, you know, quite in contrast to Rosendale, said this week that he welcomes refugees, calling them our allies who worked alongside us and are now seeking freedom and safety from the Taliban's regime of terror. Senator Tester, Senator Daines, said similar things, in essence, that we have a responsibility to help these people and that they should be welcomed. So Rosendale is definitely marching to the beat of a different drummer on this one, but isn't necessarily out of step with his constituents.

Sally Mauk In a sign, I suppose, of Rosendale's strength in his Eastern District congressional race, the top Democratic challenger, Rob, Jack Ballard, dropped out of the race this week. He couldn't raise enough money, he said.

Rob Saldin Right, Sally. And I was a bit surprised by that, simply because, as you note, he did seem to be leading the pack for Democrats in the eastern district. He'd gotten an early start. He had raised the most money on the Democratic side and so forth. Now of course he was way, way behind Rosendale in fundraising, but still he was out front among the Democrats.

Now, as we talked about a week or two ago, Sally, we did see a new candidate enter the race recently in state senator Mark Sweeney. You know, perhaps that had something to do with Ballard's decision as well. But I think more than anything, it all underscores how difficult that race is going to be for whoever gets that Democratic nomination.

Sally Mauk Tom, the leading Republican candidate in the Western District, Ryan Zinke, spent some time in Florida this week with his former boss.

Tom Kuglin Yeah. In July, former President Donald Trump endorsed his former interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, for Montana's new second congressional seat. Zinke, who was, of course, Montana's congressman, left after his second election to be interior head. As we know, while in Trump's cabinet, Zinke played a leading role in reforming environmental regulations that increased federal energy production. But he also faced multiple investigations, which the Associated Press reported led to the White House to conclude that he could be a target for Democrats when they were poised to take the House in 2018. Zinke, who resigned in 2018, at the time he said it was due to vicious and politically motivated attacks against him and said it created a distraction. When Zinke decided to run for office again in Montana he sought and received Trump's endorsement. This week he was in Mar a Lago, Trump's home, as part of an endorsed candidate forum. He said he was going to speak about energy and Ukraine. He was down there with other endorsed candidates. He mentioned Herschel Walker and Ted Cruz is also joining of them there.

Sally Mauk Rob, Zinke being all-in with Trump is a plus right now for him in red Montana, but I wonder, will it remain a plus?

Rob Saldin I tend to think it will, Sally, although there is some polling data that suggests that maybe Trump's hold on the base is weakening a little. But if it is, it's just a little.

Although this Ukraine situation is interesting for the reasons we talked about earlier, I'm not sure if that'll make any difference or not. But you know, Trump's relationships are all transactional, and so much of it is about demonstrating fealty to him. And going down to Mar a Lago, as Zinke did, and bending the knee is one of the main ways of showing that. And actually, the fact that Zinke was essentially fired by Trump but is still willing to do that is an even greater sign of loyalty to Trump. And Trump loves that. Trump loves that probably all the more in those kinds of cases. But of course, Zinke gets something out of this, too. It reinforces his affiliation with Trump, who does, I think, still maintain a strong grip on the Republican base. And particularly in a state like Montana, being associated with Trump is a plus. Even if that link to the base is weakening a touch.

Sally Mauk Two Democrats, Rob, who want to win that western seat, received some endorsements recently from two other prominent Democrats. Cora Neumann has been endorsed by former gubernatorial candidate and former Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. And Monica Tranel has the endorsement of former Governor Brian Schweitzer. They obviously think these endorsements give them a boost.

Rob Saldin Yeah. And those endorsements, I think, came some time ago, but they are certainly the two highest-profile endorsements for each of the candidates. I noted, too, that Steve Bullock appeared in a photo with Neumann and Cooney recently that made the rounds on social media, but he hasn't made a formal endorsement, at least not yet.

It's easy, Sally, I think, to overstate the importance of endorsements, and most candidates probably think that they're more important than they actually are. But I don't think they're meaningless, especially when we're dealing with candidates like these who aren't very well known and when the endorsements in question are coming from well-known figures like Schweitzer and Cooney. And that's because endorsements can function as a sort of shortcut or a seal of approval for voters who might understandably struggle to make meaningful distinctions between primary candidates from the same party. So they're far from determinative, but they aren't nothing.

Sally Mauk Lastly, Tom, there will not be a special session of the Legislature to draw up new Public Service Commission districts, after Republicans could not agree on what the scope of the session should be.

Tom Kuglin Yeah, it sure does not appear like the Montana Legislature will be coming back to Helena. The top two Republicans in the Legislature announced late last week that GOP lawmakers did not ultimately come to an agreement on a special session. Some Republican lawmakers, as well as the governor, said that session would only be called to consider the unconstitutional districts and to get that done before the court takes action. But there was a faction of Republicans that wanted to use that session to form a special committee to investigate Montana's election integrity. That now sets up a likely scenario where the federal court will draw the districts next month ahead of the candidate filing deadline. Plaintiffs of the case have submitted maps to the court, proposed district maps, and this week Secretary of State Kristi Jacobson also submitted a map. Jacobson's map would shift to three counties and, she argues, does the minimal amount of shifting needed, putting voters in different districts to bring an end to constitutional compliance.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, do you think this is a sign of a growing schism among Montanans Republicans with this inability to come to agreement about what the special session should cover it?

Rob Saldin Maybe, or maybe Sally, a new front in a longstanding split within the party. You know, as we've talked about for years now, the Montana Republican Party has had — this is somewhat imprecise, but for lack of a better way of putting it — a split between the hard conservatives and then the more moderate conservatives. And so it seems to me that maybe rather than something altogether new, this is more representative of that kind of long standing tension within the party, and a tension that could be even growing in a certain way within the Legislature now that Republicans do have really strong control of both the House and the Senate. Control that they think they have a good chance of extending here in this round of elections. And so to the extent that more and more of the action in Montana state government is going on within the Republican Party, it's not necessarily a surprise that you start to see these divides being exacerbated within that party.

Sally Mauk It's one of many things we're going to continue to track, but that's all the time we have this week.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center fellow Rob Saldin. Sitting in this week for Holly is Lee's deputy bureau chief Tom Kuglin.

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.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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