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Bipartisan unity, Rosendale and the far right, and a president with a twang?

Montana's congressional delegation unites in support of the Russian oil ban, but splits over the omnibus spending bill. Federal judges draw up a new map of PSC districts. Montana's former secretary of state wants to be a country music star/President. And a Democratic congressional candidate takes a swipe at Matt Rosendale over his ties to the far right.

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 Holly, President Biden has banned imports of Russian oil and energy, and Montana's congressional delegation and governor praised the move, while also calling for increased energy production at home.

Holly Michels Yeah, Sally, for a minute there, the delegation and governor were all more or less on the same page. We saw Democratic Senator Jon Tester and Republican Senator Steve Daines both praise Biden's decision and, like you said, call for increasing the production of oil and gas domestically. For them, that means mainly the Keystone XL pipeline. I think you can say maybe outside of Montana, support or opposition for Keystone more generally falls on party lines with Republican support. But within the state, we see Democrats, including Tester, backing it. The pipeline would have run from Canada down to Texas, including through a bit of Montana. And Biden's State Department actually denied a permit for that pipeline right as Biden took office, which Tester, in a letter to leaders in his administration this month said was a shortsighted move.

Daines has also called for restarting the pipeline. We should probably note here, though, that TC Energy, the company behind the project, said given all the uncertainty about permitting, last June they said they were officially pulling the plug on the project.

You know, like you said, we also heard Republican Governor Greg Gianforte praised the move and called for more production domestically. You heard a bit of a different route from Republican Representative Matt Rosendale. He focused his response on criticizing Biden, saying the president's claim that U.S. oil production is up was false. Rosendale pointed to 2019 levels, which are about a million barrels a day higher than we're at now, although that doesn't really include the context that production has more than doubled domestically since 2008.

Sally Mauk Rob, increased domestic oil production, even if it were to happen, isn't going to instantly lower gas prices, and those higher prices have a tremendous ripple effect, especially in rural states like Montana. And politically, this is bound to hurt Democrats more than Republicans.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally, no one likes high gas prices, particularly in a state like Montana where lots of people drive lots of miles just to get to work and whatnot. And there was already considerable concern regarding inflation more generally before this. So this certainly is the kind of thing that could have some political fallout, and it's clearly Democrats who stand to suffer since they control Congress in the White House now.

That said, there's also a widespread recognition that what's going on in Ukraine is awful and that we're willing to make some sacrifices to support Ukraine. So this is probably, I would say, more of a middle to long term concern for Democrats than an immediate issue. And in fact, polling over the last week or so has been quite encouraging for Democrats, presumably largely due to a kind of rally-round-the-flag effect that we often see in these situations. And if you're looking for something encouraging these days, it might be this. The American public and our elected officials, with a handful of notable exceptions, have been united in their support for Ukraine, their opposition to Russian belligerence and atrocities, and at least for now, they're willing to make sacrifices to back up those convictions. And that wasn't at all clear to me at the beginning of all this, that that would be the case.

Sally Mauk Holly, Both Senator Daines and Congressman Rosendale voted against the omnibus spending bill that included aid to Ukraine, but the bill passed anyway with bipartisan support.

Holly Michels Yeah, we saw a lot of fireworks, actually, in the Senate when this all went down. Like you said, Daines was one of a small group of Republicans who wanted to separate that aid from Ukraine out as a standalone bill, and he took to Twitter to criticize the omnibus bill and explained his opposition. He said it was tied to what's being called member-directed spending, which is a kind of fancy way of saying earmarks in the bill. Those have been absent since about 2009, but make a return here. And we saw Daines post a video of himself reading some of the earmarks that he says he finds concerning, as a way of explaining that opposition.

You know, Rosendale, previously in the House, voted against the omnibus bill, citing concerns over national debt and what he said were liberal policies in the bill. I think a pretty notable moment in the Senate that got a lot of attention, Democrat Senator Jon Tester pretty forcefully objected to Senator Rick Scott of Florida. Scott was trying to say that the Senate could just send a package on just Ukraine aid to the president's desk, and he was kind of leading that charge with Daines and others behind him. Tester pointed out that's not really how Congress works. It'd be impossible without the House, which had left town, and would also leave the government to shut down by midnight Friday without the omnibus bill.

Sally Mauk Rob, Daines and Rosendale argue, as Holly says, that this was a bill full of "pork" outside of the aid to Ukraine. But, Democrats are not going to let them play it that way. Are they?

Rob Saldin No, they aren't. You know, the objection on its own terms is not new. Republicans have been making that objection for a long, long time. I remember John McCain in particular, used to routinely go to the Senate floor and do the exact kind of thing that Daines did. You know, pick out one thing here and there and kind of note how silly it was and a waste of taxpayer dollars and all that. So, you know, that's a fairly routine part of the dance that goes along with these big government spending bills. But as you and Holly note, Sally, the effect here would have been to delay the aid to Ukraine, right? Holly, you note the House had done its business. The House had passed the omnibus bill. They'd packed up shop and headed out of Washington. And so the implication here is that, had that gone through the way Daines wanted, Ukraine would not have gotten its aid. And that's an urgent matter right now.

Sally Mauk Holly, federal judges this week adopted a new map of Public Service Commission districts to balance the population representation, and they just beat a deadline for candidates to file to run for two of those district seats.

Holly Michels Yeah, this was a pretty major story that, like you said, was up against a pretty tight deadline. The deadline for candidates to file to run for office is March 14th in Montana, so we were right up against the wire here. In this case, this panel of three federal judges adopted a map that was pretty similar to one submitted by Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, but with one notable change they made to not split up the Blackfeet Reservation. In Jacobsen and Republicans in the State Legislature had strongly advocated for the court to wait until the 2023 Legislature came into town to address this issue. But pretty soon after this lawsuit got filed, the court indicated that the Legislature could come in to a special session if they wanted to act. And if not, the court would draw these new districts.

Sally Mauk Rob, it's too soon to know how this new map will change the political makeup of the Public Service Commission if it changes it at all.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I suppose. You know, the issue here is all about just remedying the population imbalances between the districts and the changes necessary to do that were actually relatively modest. You know, it's shifting a county here and a county there from one district to another, that kind of thing. While that's really important in terms of complying with the one person, one vote principle, it's not going to bring revolutionary change to the PSC in terms of how these districts are drawn. And in fact, as I look at the new map and compare it to the old one, I don't really see that the basic internal political dynamics of any of the districts are going to be much different from what they have been.

The map of Montana's Public Service Commission districts created by federal judges, March 8, 2022.
The map of Montana's Public Service Commission districts created by federal judges, March 8, 2022.

Sally Mauk Holly, we learned this week that another Montanan is thinking of running for president in 2024. We had one run in 2020 briefly, and this new candidate was recently pursuing a new career in country music. There is a logical transition for you.

Holly Michels Yeah, this is former Republican Secretary of State Cory Stapleton, and this is definitely one I did not have my bingo card for this election cycle. Stapleton has made a lot of bids for office; he's run for U.S. House, Senate, governor, in addition to bids he's won for State Legislature and that secretary of state.

During his term as secretary of state, at one point, he got into hot water for a legislative audit, saying he misused a state pickup for personal business. There were some other things during his term that came up. He ended up not seeking a second term as secretary of state in 2020, ran for U.S. House after initially declaring for governor and then lost that primary.

Like you said, after that, we didn't really hear much from him until he launched a music career last year. And now with this, what it's called a 'Testing the Waters' committee, he's kind of combining those two things, saying he's going to tour with his band and also explore a run for president. This committee he's formed allows him to raise money to explore a bid without having to file a report, any of that, until he actually decides if he's going to become a candidate. In an email to our bureau on Thursday, Stapleton said he'd decide to file based on if he's able to raise enough money to mount a campaign, which would include things like paying for staff and travel.

Sally Mauk Rob, a lot of people on social media are having fun with Stapleton's tweet about running for president. But if attention was the goal, he got it.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally, you know, this is one of those stories that I initially thought just had to be some sort of Twitter prank, but apparently it's true. It doesn't take a close student of politics to recognize that Stapleton for president is a long shot, and certainly he must know that. As you suggest, Sally, there are other reasons why people run for president. One is to raise your personal prominence, you know, and you can parlay that into a cable news gig sometimes or hitting the speakers circuit and making a lot of money. Other people run to draw attention to a particular issue or to carry the flag for a particular group or an ideological movement. But typically those people have first names like "senator" or "governor" or a general, not Montana's secretary of state, and a one-term secretary of state at that, who chose not to seek reelection. So it's quite unusual. It's a little mystifying about what exactly it is that Stapleton thinks he gets out of this, but I suppose it will keep his name in the news a bit

Sally Mauk And maybe sell a few albums. Who knows?

Also talking about long shots, Rob, Democrat Mark Sweeney, who hopes to challenge Matt Rosendale for the eastern congressional seat, has posted a video on his website about why he's running. And I just want to play the first part of that video.

"My grandfather served as a U.S. Capitol Hill policeman back when FDR was our president. So when Matt Rosendale stood with the violent insurrectionists and extremist Oath Keepers, and voted against honoring the law enforcement officers who fought to protect our Capitol on January 6, 2021, it got very personal for me."

Sally Mauk I find it interesting, Rob, that Sweeney is emphasizing the January 6th insurrection and referencing Rosendale's ties to the Oath Keepers.

Rob Saldin Yeah, well, it seems like a pretty good bet. It's the play he has. Public opinion polling still clearly shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and those numbers aren't as strong as they were a year ago, and they're definitely weaker among Republicans. But still, January 6th is clearly unpopular, and Sweeney's video goes on to portray Rosendale as a kind of fringe figure with all the ties to extremist groups and policy views that are out of step with the district.

And I'd add, Sally, I guess, that the Ukraine situation that we've discussed in recent weeks only feeds into that narrative. Rosendale is really out there on that one, too. There are just a handful of others, the most insurrection-adjacent types who are staking out similar positions. And the reality at this point is pretty clear, that's just way out of step with public opinion right now. It's way out of step with where the overwhelming majority of elected Republicans are right now.

A podcast about our current political moment and the complex people and beliefs that shape Montana.

And of course, that's just the raw politics of it, to say nothing of the ethical dimensions. So it's still hard, I think, to imagine Rosendale actually losing that seat, but he's sure leaving a lot of space for his opponents to work with. And if this video is any indication, Sweeney could be a pretty good messenger on this. In addition to the hits on Rosendale, the video plays up Sweeney's own deep roots in the district and contrasts them with Rosendale's roots in Maryland. So, you know, it's a little hard to imagine, but if Rosendale is going to be pressed, that's the kind of package that an opponent would probably need.

Sally Mauk And of course, it's a very long time till November. We're only in March. Rob and Holly, we are out of time this week. Thank you and have a good weekend.

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.

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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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