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'Little communists'; The Legislature takes a loss; Elections are nearing, so where are the ads?

Two legal decisions go against actions by the last Legislature. Republicans want a more conservative state Supreme Court. Congressional candidate Ryan Zinke calls people who got the COVID vaccine "little Communists." And Texas Senator Ted Cruz gets upset in a Montana airport.

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, two legal decisions this week went against the last Republican-led Legislature's wishes; One by a district court judge declared unconstitutional a bill that would have put on the November ballot a requirement that state Supreme Court justices be elected by regional districts instead of at large as they are now.

Holly Michels Yeah, this bill is one of several that we saw in the last legislative session aimed at changing the way the judiciary looks in Montana. Like you said, it would put to voters in this November's election to decide if we should elect Supreme Court judges by district. During the session, there was a legal note that actually flagged concerns about the constitutionality of the bill. Legal notes are a pretty interesting thing. They used to be posted online with bills, but that practice stopped last session. Now you have to seek them out. And while they don't make definitive proclamations that something is constitutional, they are meant to flag potential problems for a bill requester. And that legal note raised some of the things that we saw the judge cite in saying this was an unconstitutional proposal.

There was a Supreme Court decision nearly a decade ago that found that the court wasn't intended to be representative of regional interests. And there was also concern that if you wanted to change how judges are elected, you would actually need to change the state Constitution, not just state law. But this was a referendum, not a constitutional amendment. So, it would've actually needed more votes to pass the Legislature if they went the constitutional route. After we saw the judge's order, we haven't heard from the Attorney General's Office if they might appeal this, but they said they're kind of reviewing the order and evaluating their next steps.

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

Sally Mauk The second legal action this week, Holly, came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied the Legislature's effort to subpoena judicial records, and basically they left intact a Montana Supreme Court ruling to that effect.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think this was pretty expected, just given that the U.S. Supreme Court really doesn't take up the vast majority of requests to hear cases. Like you said, this upholds a decision that the state Supreme Court made.

This all stems from a dispute, again, during the last legislative session between Republican lawmakers and the Court. During the session, lawmakers learned that the court was polling judges via email about legislation. The courts defended this practice, saying that it does that so that it can know what judges are thinking so that they can, through their association, weigh in on legislation and help shape it. But Republican lawmakers view this as judges pre-forming opinions about laws that they might be hearing cases about later. So as part of this dispute, the Legislature subpoenaed the court for their email records, and the court denied that request. And actually one of the justices went to District Court. A district court also found the same as the Supreme Court in saying that the Legislature didn't have a legitimate legislative purpose in their subpoena.

I think what's interesting here is, still up in the air is the status. There were thousands of pages of emails at the State Department administration, which kind of serves as an I.T. function for a lot of government branches. They actually did turn over a lot of emails to lawmakers. It's not really clear what the Legislature is going to do with those, you know, they'd previously been ordered to get them back and they had, while this was still pending. So we're still kind of waiting to see what happens with those documents.

Sally Mauk Rob, Republicans think the existing state Supreme Court is too liberal, and some of these efforts by the Legislature are aimed at getting more conservative judges on the state's high court.

Rob Saldin Yeah, exactly Sally. You know, I think this is all about the courts being essentially the final check on elected Republicans. The Montana GOP has been so successful recently in terms of winning elections they've had solid majorities now in the Legislature for some time. But the Legislature before this had long considered itself to be thwarted by Democratic governors, so that had been such a source of frustration for them for a long time. From their perspective, they had an obvious natural majority in the state, but for one flukey reason or another, Democrats managed to cling to the governor's office for 16 years, so that was priority number one. Well they got that, which gives them unified control, of course, of the House, the Senate and the executive branch in Helena. But now it's the judiciary as the last check. And Republicans see that branch of government as kind of a relic of the old days when Montana was a genuinely purple state. And they think the judiciary leans to the left, and that's not where the state is at anymore.

The other thing I think that's going on here is that the Republican Party has become more conservative, probably both in that older sense of the term, meaning limited government and whatnot, but also in the more updated contemporary sense of the term, meaning more Trumpy and more aggressive on some of these polarizing cultural issues. And that development within the party has only exacerbated the irritation with the courts and fueled Republican animosity toward that branch of government.

Sally Mauk Rob, the leading Republican running for the open Western congressional seat, Ryan Zinke, he did an interview this week with Peter Christian of KGVO Radio, where he sounded a lot of familiar Republican themes, like protecting gun rights and fostering more energy development, etc. But one part of the interview especially stood out to me when he responded to a question about government overreach. Here's what he said:

Speaker 5 "The government shouldn't be in a role of telling an individual what he can or cannot do. Vaccinations is a perfect example of that. If you didn't march in line like a little communist and you even dared to raise your hand and asked about the efficacy of natural immunity, of is this booster effective to the newest variant. If you asked the question, you were shamed, you know, canceled. Sometimes you, you're your livelihood would be in jeopardy. You could lose your license in the cases of some of our physicians and nurse practitioners. So this is a direct assault on our freedom and constitutional freedoms."

Sally Mauk He's basically saying, Rob, that anyone who got vaccinated against COVID is a "little communist." Really?

Rob Saldin Right, Sally. You know, certainly vaccines became politicized. And I'm sure we would not have too much trouble finding examples of people out there who lacked graciousness in their zeal about vaccines. And there's a case to be made for having some sympathy and understanding for people who are genuinely nervous about vaccines. You know, both as a matter of common decency and as a matter of effective public health and trying to depoliticize vaccines and get as many shots in arms as you can.

But the victimhood narrative that Zinke is spinning here does strike me as as pretty over the top. You know, maybe that's a plausible account of the cultural milieu in certain parts of the country. Maybe that's reflective of what one would see on MSNBC or in certain communities in, say, California, deeply blue parts of the country. But that doesn't strike me as a very plausible account of how this played out in Montana. Vaccine skeptics in Montana had plenty of like-minded comrades out there. You know, Sally, I also got a kick of one other part of that interview. Shortly after his bit about vaccines, Zinke lamented how angry the country is and how we need to come together to solve our problems. And you know, yeah, I think he's probably correct about that. But of course, referring to vaccine supporters as "little communists" probably isn't very helpful in Zinke's purported quest for unity.

Sally Mauk Also, his point about some medical people lost their licenses for being against the vaccine; That's just not true.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I'm not familiar with any such cases.

Sally Mauk Holly, Texas Senator Ted Cruz was in Montana recently and made national headlines when he got into a tiff with officials at the airport in Belgrade. Do we know why he was in Montana and what happened?

Holly Michels We don't know why he was in Montana. And as to what happened, there's video online, it's hard to really tell exactly what's going on. It's hard to hear the audio. But the director of the airport in Belgrade confirmed after this happened that a public safety officer was asked to assist when Cruz was up at a ticket counter and frustrated about having missed a check-in for his flight. The director said that the officer didn't know he was dealing with Ted Cruz until after the fact.

Ted Cruz has gotten a fair amount of attention over this, with a lot of connections being made about when he flew to Cancun last year during the middle of an intense winter storm in Texas. And when all this happened, Cruz was trying to get back to D.C. for the U.S. Supreme Court nominee hearings. And there's been some media coverage connecting Cruz's questioning of the nominee with his behavior at the airport, pointing out that he was lamenting the lack of decorum or politeness during the hearing. But then he had this incident and then some of the sharpest exchanges that we saw during the hearings.

Sally Mauk Well as Holly just pointed out, Rob, Cruz needed to get back to Washington so he could participate in the confirmation hearings for President Biden's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. And he was one of the Republican senators who attacked her in those hearings. And this kind of partisanship in the Senate, it's reared its ugly head many times before. I'm guessing Montana's two senators will likely split their votes on her nomination.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I would sure think so, Sally. You know, these hearings, it seems to me, you know, kind of got overshadowed. Ukraine is out there. And it also just seemed pretty clear from the beginning that there was no real question over whether Jackson would be confirmed.

But yes, it certainly does seem like the votes will fall largely along our usual partisan divide. Tester used some colorful and pointed language to make clear that he didn't think his Republican colleague Josh Hawley's efforts to portray Jackson as soft on crime were credible, and he has since announced he will support the nomination. Not a surprise. And for Daines' part, there's certainly no reason to think that he would do anything other than join most of the other Republicans in opposing her.

Sally Mauk Lastly, Rob and Holly, the June primary, will be here in just over two months, and we still have yet to see any major campaign ads from any of the congressional candidates.

Holly, what are they waiting for? I mean, especially those candidates who no one's ever heard of.

Holly Michels Yeah, I'm really curious about that. I was looking through their finance reports through this last week, and you know, some of the candidates that do, like you said, need to get their name out there — We've got Monica Tranel and Cora Neumann who've run in some pretty prominent races, but fair to say, probably a lot of folks need introductions to them as candidates. They've raised significant money, but there's no spending that I'm seeing on ads yet.

What I'm looking to is, mid-April is their next finance report, and maybe we'll see some advertising spending. But I would think we'd also be seeing the ads on TV or social media or elsewhere before that point. Just for these candidates who need to get their names out there, it's probably getting close to time to be doing that.

Sally Mauk Yeah. Rob timing is everything, right?

Rob Saldin Well, it is, and the clock is ticking. You know, obviously some of these candidates have a pretty robust online and social media presence, and we've actually seen some professional ad-like videos that you can access on some of their web sites, although those have limited reach. But yeah, Sally, you're right. You know, spring is here. Election Day for the primary is going to be here before we know it, and it sure seems like it's time for some of that traditional paid media on TV that can just reach a broader swath of the public, and that's not so targeted to voters who are already in your corner.

And you know, some of those videos we've seen are, I think, highly likely to just be cut down in length and put on TV. So for at least some of these candidates, they've presumably got those all ready to go. They're just sitting on them. Now, for some of these congressional candidates, Holly, I think, is, as you alluded to, there's probably a real issue of limited resources. But certainly, Zinke and Matt Rosendale and Cora Neumann, they have the cash to get up on the air, and Monica Tranel probably does as well. And it is that Democratic primary in the West, where advertising could probably make the most difference. Once you're as well known as someone like Zinke or Rosendale, it's harder to move the needle one way or the other. But for less well-known candidates like those Western Dems, Tranel, Neumann, Winter, advertising can make a real difference in just boosting your name recognition and creating a positive impression.

Sally Mauk Well, we shall see what shows up on air in the next few weeks and what the nature of those ads will be. The campaign season will surely heat up soon. Rob and Holly, thank you, and I'll talk to you next week.

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

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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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