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Rosendale's Ukraine vote, 'the most hated man in Helena' and Gianforte kills another radio-collared animal near Yellowstone

Rep. Rosendale sits out the State of the Union and votes no on a resolution in support of Ukraine. Attorney General Knudsen brags about being 'the most hated man in Helena.' And is the furor over Gov. Gianforte's lion hunt much ado about nothing?

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 Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

Sally Mauk Rob. President Biden gave his State of the Union address this week and Montana's two senators have predictable reactions. Democratic Senator Jon Tester thought the speech was just fine and Republican Senator Steve Daines was highly critical.

Rob Saldin Yeah, that's right, Sally. It was predictable. Steve Daines, had a quippy little one liner to lead off his statement parroting the traditional line from the president, Daines says the State of the Union is in jeopardy. Noted inflation, the energy crisis, the southern border. A lot of the usual things that probably could have been written up a few weeks ago. Tester, by contrast, very supportive of the administration. As you'd expect, he spent most of his statement noting the administration's response to the Ukraine situation.

Sally Mauk Republican Representative Matt Rosendale chose not to even attend the speech. Rob.

Rob Saldin Yeah, and that was probably the most notable thing from the Montana delegation. Rosendale skipped it altogether, and it's not like he had a conflict. He said that he wasn't going to attend because he didn't think that taking a COVID test, which was required to get into the chamber was necessary.

Sally Mauk Holly, the US House this week voted overwhelmingly to pass a resolution supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia, and Representative Rosendale was one of only three House members to vote against that resolution and that no vote comes on the heels of Rosendale also co-sponsoring a bill opposing any aid to Ukraine until the U.S. border with Mexico is secured.

Holly Michels Yeah, Rosendale has voted no a lot since he was elected to Congress. I remember Mike Dennison, a reporter who's now retired for MTN, his whole story on Rosendale first year in office was focused on how many times he voted no. But this one, I think, goes beyond some of those past no votes. Like you said, the no vote was against a resolution in support of the people of Ukraine, also calling for a cease fire and for Russian troops to withdraw and for additional sanctions against Russia. It's a non-binding resolution. Like you said, Rosendale was joined by only two other members of that House, both Republicans and voting no. In explaining that vote, Rosendale issued a statement to several media outlets saying he couldn't support the resolution because of what he called a "invasion of illegal aliens flooding our southern border." And to that point, like you said, he's introduced a bill with nine other Republicans that would deny any U.S. aid to Ukraine until the US builds. But you once it's a 30 foot high wall made of hardened steel. News also said in previous statements that the U.S. has quote no legal or more obligation to come to the aid of either side in this foreign conflict. And just to point out, you know, we haven't seen anyone in the U.S. government talk about aiding Russia a year

Sally Mauk Rob, Rosendale's opposition to aid for Ukraine has garnered national attention and criticism. But how do you think it's playing with his Montana base and beyond?

Rob Saldin Well Sally, I think this one could hurt him. You know, we talked about this last week in regard to the various statements put out by Montana's leading politicians on Ukraine, and we noted that Rosendale took a position of neutrality, right? He didn't say that he supports Ukraine, and he wouldn't say that he condemns Russia or Putin. And last week, while that was certainly a minority position, there were plenty of other Republican voices in that space, notably former President Trump. Well, I think the most noteworthy thing since then is that that space has largely been abandoned. Now nearly everyone wants to be on record as supporting Ukraine. Maybe most illustrative of this, Tucker Carlson, the leading Fox News personality, has done a big reversal and is now saying he's with Ukraine and against Russia. But not Rosendale. He's doubled down and that's way out of step with not just the American public, but with elected Republicans and Republican voters. There was a prominent national poll this week, for instance, that I noticed that revealed that among Republicans, 80 percent want a tougher response toward Russia and that only two percent think we've been too tough on Russia. As Holly went through, you know, his attempt to connect it to the U.S. border and Mexico and opioids. Well, that's just going to be a stretch for most people who will struggle to see the connection between those issues.

Sally Mauk Senator Tester could not resist a dig at Rosendale over Rosendale's opposition to aid for Ukraine, and he put that dig on Twitter.

Rob Saldin Right? And of course, they ran against one another. The last time Tester was up four years ago and just thinking about Rosendale position on this, you know, it does in one sense seem genuinely shocking. But on the other hand, it does reinforce his America first creed. And perhaps importantly, it distinguishes him from his fellow Republicans. And, you know, Sally there is some money to be made in that space. And there's also another U.S. Senate election coming up in two years. And that may have been what Tester had in mind with his tweet. But you know, that's going to be one that a lot of Republicans are going to be taking a look at. And if Rosendale is interested in another go at the upper chamber, it's going to be pretty hard for any other Republican to get to his right

Sally Mauk Rosendale's position on Ukraine, Rob, stands in stark contrast to Governor Gianforte's. The governor has ordered, for example, the state to divest itself of any Russian investments, right Sally.

Rob Saldin And, you know, in contrast to Rosendale, Gianforte's response has been basically spot on with what one would have traditionally expected from a Republican politician at a time of a foreign policy crisis. You know, first you have a clear assertion of whose side we're on. You know, we're with the besieged democracy and against the authoritarian regime. And then second to recognition that this is a crisis that calls for a departure from normal day to day politics. So you dial back the partizanship a bit. And this crackdown by Gianforte on Russian investment seems like a natural extension of that and one that's appropriate for a governor as opposed to, say, a member of Congress.

Sally Mauk Holly, Montana's Attorney General Austin Knudsen continues to also make national headlines, and this is over his investigations into the social media company TikTok and the crowdfunding site Go Fund Me. Why is he doing this?

Holly Michels You know, it's not clear exactly what's expected to come of these investigations, but I think we saw that this got a lot of coverage picked up by national media. What his office is doing is they've launched an investigation into the social media app TikTok, saying it could be violating Montana's Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act. Knudsen's focus is on claims that the app exposes children to dangerous and explicit content, that it distributes dangerous content without adequate warning, and that it misrepresents the dangers it presents to consumers. He also points out the app is owned by a Chinese company.

Under that same act, Knudsen has launched an investigation into Go Fund Me over concerns that the crowdfunding site was redirecting donations made in support of people demonstrating against vaccine mandates in Canada as part of what's been called the Freedom Convoy. Knudsen's inquiry into the company references a statement from Go Fund Me on February 1st, saying it would redirect funds, citing concerns that this convoy was an occupation and that the company had seen police reports of violence and other unlawful activities, and that while the company helped support peaceful protests, it doesn't want to help support something like that. The same day we actually saw Go Find the issue a statement saying that would automatically refund contributions. But Canadians office said they're investigating because they're being contacted by concerned Montanans. And he told the Daily Wire that there were very likely Montanans who would have donated to this cause through a press release from his office didn't cite any specific Montanans who had donated. This investigation is similar to ones that were launched in other states like Florida, Louisiana, West Virginia and Texas.

Sally Mauk Also by Republican Attorney Generals.

Holly, Knudsen has also hired an outside attorney with strong Republican ties to help the AG's office deal with a slew of lawsuits challenging laws passed by the last Legislature. Who is she and what's going on there?

Holly Michels So this attorney is Emily Jones, who the Montana Free Press reported about the contract that she entered into with Knudsen's office. It's $10,000 a month starting in January runs throughout this year. Like you said, his office is defending a lot of legislation, and I think there's 18 bills at this point that were passed in the 2021 Legislature and have now been challenged in court. Jones is a pretty well-known entity. She's represented conservative causes in a lot of legal cases across the state. She's also married to Jake Eaton, who is a pretty well-known conservative political consultant. Eaton also led Knudsen's transition team when he stepped into the Attorney General's Office and for a time served as a senior adviser. In explaining this contract a spokesperson for the attorney general told the Montana's Free Press civil litigation has historically not been a strength for the department, and Jones was saying, you know, she's quoted in the same article saying that she was actually offered a position in the AG's office when Knudsen took over but turned it down. But this is a way she feels she can engage.

Sally Mauk Rob, Knudsen spoke at a recent Republican gathering, and he bragged he is, quote, the most hated man in Helena. He sees that apparently as a badge of honor.

Rob Saldin You know, Sally just by the nature of the job I think the attorney general is often right in the middle of hotly contested issues and can be something of a lightning rod, but still, there's a big contrast between Knudsen and his two predecessors Tim Fox and Steve Bullock. And Knudsen does seem to kind of go looking for things to insert himself into and relishes being in the middle of divisive things that are off-putting to some segments of the state. He's certainly more brash and aggressive than his predecessors, and he presents himself as more of a culture warrior and an enthusiastic one at that. And that approach, you know, it is a good fit for where the Republican Party is at right now, and it's been successful for him in the sense that it has very much kept him in the news and raised his profile. And that's all good for him, particularly if, as I think is widely assumed around Helena he wants to run for governor down the line.

Sally Mauk Lastly, Holly, Governor Gianforte made national news this week when The Washington Post first reported that the governor had shot and killed a radio collared Yellowstone mountain lion this past December outside of the park. The kill was legal, but not everyone, Holly, thinks it was ethical.

Holly Michels So like you said, Gianforte shot this five year old male mountain lion that had been collared by biologists in Yellowstone National Park, and he hunted the lion using hounds that treed the animal. Like you said, the hunt followed all laws, and the governor's office has pushed back aggressively on an anonymous claim that Gianforte didn't arrive until the animal was treed. But even though the hunt has followed all laws doesn't mean it hasn't drawn a pretty significant amount of criticism. You know, there's groups like the Center for Biological Diversity. They support relisting wolves in the northern Rockies as endangered. That group is saying mountain lions and wolves in Yellowstone Park, which is where the animal was, and then left the park for public lands where Gianforte shot at near Emmigrant. They're saying those animals are vital to the makeup of the park. There's also groups that oppose hunting with hounds. We heard a lot of their voices during the most recent legislative session last year. You know, all that being said, though, there's a fair amount of Montanans who hunt this way, who celebrate the utility of hunting hounds. Mountain lion populations in Montana are healthy, and they're managed through things like hunting.

Sally Mauk Rob, Yellowstone wildlife biologists and researchers must think the governor is trying to sabotage their work, having now killed both a radio collared wolf and a radio collared mountain lion. But do Montanans in general, Rob, care? I mean, we're a hunting culture, and Montanans on the whole are not queasy about killing wildlife.

Rob Saldin You know, look, obviously there are people who find hunting in general to be distasteful, and there's probably a somewhat larger group that might object to or look down on this particular type of hunting, right? See it as kind of unsportsmanlike, you know, running the cat into the tree and and whatnot, or a kind of elite and effete form of hunting. But most of those people probably aren't big Gianforte fans to begin with. For his supporters, this is something to probably rally round. And you can see that if you followed this on Twitter, it's another example of what they'll see is hysterical overreaction by lefty do gooders. And they'll point out that, well, you know, actually hunting is, as Holly noted, is an important part of sustaining healthy numbers for these species and so on. So I doubt that this one worries the governor too much.

Sally Mauk And I also suspect we'll see that mountain lion that the governor shot hanging in his office soon. Rob and Holly. Thank you, and I'll talk to you next week.

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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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