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Gianforte's 'light touch'; Montana credibility; Daines visits Ukraine

Gov. Gianforte touts his success working with political opponents. Two Democratic congressional candidates debut their first TV ads. The Board of Public Education is sued over its failure to include public input on a recent decision over the word "equity." And Sen. Steve Daines sees firsthand the horror of the war in Ukraine.

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, Gov. Greg Gianforte was the featured guest at a recent Mansfield Center event on the University of Montana campus on the topic of bipartisanship, and the governor spent an hour touting his record of working with political opponents. But his political opponents on social media especially were quick to take issue with Gianforte's version of what has taken place during his administration.

Holly Michels Yeah, I saw the same that you did. The majority of reactions on social media have been pretty critical, though I think it is fair to say Twitter and other social media outlets don't fully reflect the state overall. But, you know, looking at this and thinking about it from a journalistic perspective, I think what's challenging about the talk is the moderation felt different than what you might see in an interview with the governor. And that's where I think people on the other side of the aisle from Gianforte wanted a little more questioning when the governor would say something, asking about, 'OK, well, what about this that happened, or this?' And I think it feels a little more challenging just because we don't get a lot of face time interviews directly with the governor. You know, it's not specific to Gianforte. It wasn't always easy to get former Gov. Steve Bullock in person. But I think with the Gianforte administration, the has been asking for weekly press conferences since the legislative session, or some sort of regularly scheduled availability, and haven't been successful in that. There are press events the governor does when he's traveling the state, with a short media availability, but it's a much different format than what this was, you know, with a lot of big audience, sort of statewide reach. So I think that's where we see these critiques, as people, you know, maybe were looking to see something more of a press conference where there were questions following up on statements that the governor would make.

Sally Mauk Right. There was very little pushback on anything the governor said. Here's how the governor, Holly, characterized his approach to governing.

Speaker 1 "I'm a light touch guy. I don't, we don't want a heavy hand from our government."

Sally Mauk I'm not sure, Holly, that even his allies would characterize Governor Gianforte as a "light touch guy."

Holly Michels Yeah, I think this is again where, you know, if it was a reporter, we'd hope that they would be asking follow up questions about that. You know, looking at recent actions his administration has gotten involved with, you know, things like a vote the subcommittee of the Board of Public Education took. But on the flip side, I think there's also an example right now with the Montana State Hospital, where we see people wanting more engagement from his administration. We've heard that critique from Democrats and, you know, so of course, if those follow up questions are asked that, you know, it gives a space to question, also gives Gianforte space to explain himself. So, you know, this was billed as a dialog, not an interview or press conference, but again, when it's such a big audience, I think people were kind of looking to see a little more back and forth there.

Sally Mauk I want to remind our listeners, Rob, that you work at the Mansfield Center, which sponsored this event with the governor. But another thing Governor Gianforte emphasized was how much Montanans have in common. And here's what he said about that.

Speaker 1 "I think we have more in common than separates us. I really do. And if we if we focus on building the relationship and going back to core principles, we'd have much more common ground. I I don't approach my job as a partisan job. I really don't"

Sally Mauk And Rob, He went on to say that most Montanans want good jobs and education for their kids and to protect Montana's way of life. But the devil is in the details, Rob, not in platitudes.

Rob Saldin For sure, Sally. And you know, I'd just say at the outset, you know, the Mansfield Center has always sought to offer a diverse range of viewpoints and will continue to do so. We think that's an essential feature of the healthy democracy. Of course, it's up to the audience to decide for itself whether it finds any given presenter to be compelling and convincing and fair and reasonable. And that certainly goes for the moderation of any event as well. And and in this case, clearly many people have made those determinations.

As for the quote, yes, there was a lot of this talk about Montana way of life and Montana values and what we share in common. But as is so often the case, when we trot out stuff like 'Montana values,' it's usually not very well defined. And a lot of it, as the governor said, it does come down to core principles. The problem, of course, is that people disagree, and those disagreements are not the kind of thing that can always be solved by eating a bison burger at Gianforte's estate. Those differences are still going to be there.

Sally Mauk Holly, two of the three Democrats running for the new Western Congressional District, have their first TV ads out. And here's the one with Cora Neumann

Speaker 5 "On a quiet street in Bozeman sits this little blue house. I'm Cora Neumann. I grew up right here and went to school down the road. But now, houses like this are surrounded by mansions like this, and everyone is paying more. In Congress I'll go after rich outsiders driving up costs, take on price gougers and fight for housing we can actually afford. I'm Cora Neumann and I approve this message because it's time to take Montana back."

Sally Mauk And Holly, she's standing in front of an unassuming little house, looking kind of unassuming herself and promising to fight for Montanans.

Holly Michels Yeah, this ad is pretty interesting, I think. One of the big questions we're going to see for sure in the general election, but it's coming up in this Democratic primary, too, is this question of who's been in Montana for how long and where are they from originally? We've all heard Democrats criticize Republican Ryan Zinke for the amount of time he spent in California, but it's coming up in the primary too. I think a few shows back Rob talked about how Monica Tranel, one of the other people in this primary, took a stab at Neumann for time that Newman spent out of Montana. And Neumann's ad is kind of dealing with that head-on, right at the top. Like you said, it starts with her in front of this house, and this is where she spent time as a kid in Bozeman. You know, in interviews Neumann's talked about how her family moved to Bozeman when she was an infant, had to move away when they hit hard financial times in the recession in the '80s.

In past elections, we've seen Democrats try to label Republicans as carpetbaggers, wealthy out-of-staters who've come here to run for office with various degrees of success. And you know, Neumann's ad, of course, shows mansions, like you said, in Bozeman, which is, of course, where Gianforte home is. There's also a shot of this private jet that sure looks a lot like Gianforte's, while the words "rich outsiders" are shown on the screen. And you look at Tester Rosendale race in 2018, we heard "Maryland Matt," I think, more times than anyone could count, and Tester won that race. But then, you know, Rosendale went on to win in 2020. And, you know, Democrats hit Gianforte really hard in the 2016 governor's race, which he lost. But then he turned around one special election in '17, reelection in '18, the governor's office in 2020. So I'm really curious how this will play out. You know, also looking at this Western District, it has a lot of newcomers to the state, looking at Bozeman, Missoula, the Flathead. So I'm kind of curious how the message of who's from here and all of that will play to those people.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, Monica Tranel also has a new ad, and here's that ad.

Speaker 6 "This is my home, and I'm not going to sit by and watch Montana become a playground for billionaires while regular people can't afford to live here. I'm Monica Tranel. I grew up on a ranch with nine siblings. I've spent my career standing up for Montanans against powerful monopolies. I've gone toe to toe with corporations like NorthWestern Energy and Cargill, and won. I approve this message. This is home. I'm not letting it go without a fight."

Sally Mauk And Rob, Tranel is sitting atop a horse out in the country, and like Neumann, pledging to fight the evil rich guys.

Rob Saldin Yeah, it's very similar in tone and message to Neumann's ad. You know, the same insider-outsider dynamic with the good everyday people under threat from nefarious interlopers. But it does, like Neumann's, speak to real issue and a real concern across much of the Western District. The cost of housing has skyrocketed and it's hitting a lot of people. Now, I think one challenge these two candidates have — and we did, Holly is, as you note, touch on this a few weeks ago — is that they have a lot in common, so it's difficult for them to differentiate themselves from one another. And I think we do get a bit of an effort to do that here in Tranel's spot. We do see more of her personal background in here, taking on corporations, including notably NorthWestern Energy. So, she is trying to press the case that she maybe not only recognizes these widely perceived challenges, but has some professional background of fighting for the little guy.

I guess one final thing I'd note, Sally, is just that I'm a little surprised we're just seeing these ads drop now. Of course, this stuff is expensive to produce and to air, so it probably is largely a reflection of financial realities. But for candidates who aren't particularly well known, as these two are not, certainly nowhere near as well-known as Ryan Zinke, these ads are a key part of how a candidate introduces themselves to the public and attempts to define who they are. And we're less than two months out of the primary at this point.

Sally Mauk It will be interesting to follow how they will distinguish between themselves in time for the primary.

Holly, we've talked previously about the Board of Public Education voting to reject an advisory committee recommendation to add the word "equity" to it's teachers code of ethics. And we pointed out the lack of public input on that decision could lead to a lawsuit. And sure enough, it has.

Holly Michels Yeah. So, this lawsuit is coming from the Daily Montanan, which is a nonprofit news outlet mostly published online, and they've joined with the Montana Federation of Public Employees to file this lawsuit in the complaint. They're saying that this March vote that you just talked about to reject this advisory council's update to the code of rthics for educators, they're saying that, you know, they didn't have the authority to make the update and it wasn't properly noticed.

What happened is the agenda item was listed as informational, not an action item. And at the time, during the meeting, the board's own attorney cautioned members of the board against taking that vote, citing concerns it wasn't properly noticed. You know, we also had at that time Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras arguing that it was sufficient because this was included in the board's packet. So, in this lawsuit, the news outlet and union are asking the court to find that the board's actions were unlawful, to actually void the vote that they took. And they also want a preliminary injunction to stop the board from taking any sort of similar action whie, the lawsuit plays out.

Sally Mauk Finally, Rob, Senator Steve Daines was in Ukraine this week, one of the first American politicians to visit there, and he toured areas like Bucha, where Russians have executed and tortured many, many civilians. And he's come out strongly supporting more U.S. military aid to Ukraine. But we should note that in the only Senate vote on such aid so far, he voted no a few weeks ago.

Rob Saldin Right. That was part of a larger package, so he did have the justification in that maybe he opposed some of the other stuff in it, and it wasn't a direct up or down on Ukraine. But in any event, Sally, I thought the interview he did on CNN with Jake Tapper was quite good. It was a welcome statement. He came off as emotional, which is something we don't always see from him. And he came off as genuine. He should get some kudos for having made the trip.

The other thing I guess that strikes me, Sally, is that to me, it really highlighted the degree to which Matt Rosendale is now isolated on this issue. You know, at the beginning of this, it wasn't at all clear where the Republican Party would come down because Trump has been somewhere between neutral or even pro Russia and pro Putin on this. And there have been a small handful of people who have taken up that position. But most elected Republicans are roughly where Steve Daines is, you know, clearly pro Ukraine. They aren't directly taking it to Trump, but they're clearly pro Ukraine. Rosendale is one who is not, and there are just a small handful of people at this point who are in that space. And so that's increasingly looking like a real liability for Rosendale.

Sally Mauk Well, perhaps Congressman Rosendale should take his own trip to Ukraine.

Holly, Rob, Thank you. We're out of time, 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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