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Democrats vie for working class votes; Ahead in fundraising, Zinke skips a Republican debate

Democrats compete over the working class vote. Ryan Zinke opts out of a Republican debate. Not every Republican congressional candidate believes the presidential election was stolen. Another law passed by the last Legislature hits a legal snag.

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, we've been musing about when primary candidates would begin criticizing their primary opponents, not just the candidate they might face in the general election. And this week, one of the three Democratic candidates in the Western Congressional District, Tom Winter, went after Democrat Cora Neumann for using an out-of-state consulting firm, Global Strategy Group, because of work that firm did for Amazon in its effort to keep its workers from unionizing. And here's part of what Winters said on social media.

"Look, if you're going to run campaigns that claim to support working Montanans and fighting for their votes and their rights, honestly, it's not that hard. You just allow your campaigns to unionize if they would like and you only work with people who support unions as well."

Sally Mauk And, Rob, Winter is hoping to convince Democratic voters that he's a better ally to workers than Cora Neumann.

Rob Saldin Right. You know, Sally, campaigns typically have a lot of these attempts to draw distinctions and highlight differences, and this Democratic primary actually has been pretty quiet on that front, at least until now. And Winter's campaign hasn't gained a whole lot of traction, so I'm not surprised to see him getting a little bit more aggressive here.

It also strikes me, though, that at least in one sense, Winter is on to something here in his effort to speak to a constituency, the working class, that used to be absolutely central to the Democratic Party but is one that they've been hemorrhaging support in in recent years. And if the party is going to be competitive again in states like Montana, it's got to figure out a way to bring some of those voters back into the fold. So Winter at least seems to recognize that or be playing to that here. But it's not clear that old-school labor politics is necessarily where the action is anymore. There's a good case to be made that the Democratic Party's problem in places like Montana isn't so much a failure to appeal to these voters on economic grounds, but rather that the party is culturally out of step, that the party, at least at the elite level in terms of many of the party's most visible elected leaders in terms of donors, in terms of the political professionals who run campaigns, that the party is, through that lens, perceived as being coastal, is perceived as being obsessed with identity issues and pronouns, and is perceived as projecting a kind of sneering accusatory condescension toward anyone who isn't in lockstep agreement with that outlook, and that they do all this from a place of relative wealth and social prestige and privilege. So, to the extent that's true, you know, that's an enormous challenge for the party and unionizing campaign staffers, I'm not sure. I guess it's a way Winter can try to distinguish himself, but in this larger context, I'm just not sure that's going to go too far in speaking to the real problem that Democrats have increasingly had in places like Montana.

Sally Mauk Holly, there is another reason Winter is going after Neumann. She's leading in fundraising among the Democratic candidates.

Holly Michels Yeah, you're right Sally, she is, and by a pretty significant amount, too. For the last quarter, which are the campaign finance reports that we just saw, Neumann took in a bit more than $400,000. And over the race, she's raised more than $1.1 million. She spent about $160,000 over the last quarter, and we talked last time about some of the first television ads in the race. Some of that went toward that. She still has about $878,000 left in cash on hand. So I think it's fair to say we're going to see that money deployed coming up pretty soon with the June primary.

Next in the fundraising numbers, Monica Tranel, she brought in about $253,000 in the last quarter, and you know, over the race that puts her at about $673,000. And she's spending pretty significantly, too. We saw a TV ad from her. She spent about $400,000 in the race.

And then Winter, like you said, is lagging pretty far behind those two. He, in the last quarter, raised about $42,000. He is just shy at $95,000 for the whole race, and that includes a $10,000 loan to himself, and he's spent about $80,000. So, got some pretty wide variety of fundraising in the Democratic primary.

Sally Mauk But none of those Democrats, Holly, can match the kind of money that Republican Ryan Zinke has raised so far.

Holly Michels Yeah, no, Zinke is in the millions. You know, he ended the last quarter, too, still with $1.2 million In the bank. So he's brought in a lot. He spent a lot and he still has a lot around to spend. We haven't seen a lot of that, as much, you know, we talked about these TV ads. For Zinke, you know, looking through his reports, he spent about $160,000 on digital advertising and then spent money on polling, but we haven't really seen TV ads yet. And he's far away ahead from the next closest in that Republican primary. That's State Senator Al Olszewski. He raised about $89,000 over the last quarter. He's loaned himself $175,000 for the race. He's at about $678,000.

And then we've got Mary Todd, who's a pastor in Kalispell. She's raised just about $38,000 over the last quarter. So, you know, Zinke's really pulling away from the pack here. And I think part of it is he's run before, he's done these races, he's been Secretary of the Interior, and that comes with a lot of also professional connections he's made since leaving office. That shows up in things like, he's raised about $360,000 from political action committees, that sort of thing. So, kind of makes sense that he is the frontrunner in the money race.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, he is the frontrunner, but he's also the only Republican candidate who didn't bother to show up for a recent debate in Kalispell, and that debate was sponsored by Flathead County Republicans.

Rob Saldin Right. And we're seeing this a lot among Republican politicians, Sally, and it strikes me as an extension of a broader effort to avoid taking any risks. And so increasingly, they don't interact much with traditional media or even their constituents unless they're prescreened. It used to be they were reliant on traditional media because that was the only way to get their message out. But now, with social media and whatnot, they can do it themselves. So why take the risk? You know, one particular moment when this really struck me Sally was when you and I were at Trump's 2018 rally at the Missoula airport in support of Matt Rosendale's Senate campaign against Tester. The event was over and we were outside waiting for a bus in the cordoned off area that's only accessible to media people and the rally's organizers. And here comes Rosendale and his wife and a few staffers just ripping past us, making a beeline for a waiting SUV. Then seconds later, Gloria Borger from CNN and her camera crew sprint by us in hot pursuit. They were too late. Rosendale and his entourage jumped into the SUV and they were off. But I remember Borger coming back and just being exasperated and saying that she'd never seen a candidate run away from the media at his own campaign rally. And to me, that little episode just really exemplified this new reality in which Republican politicians are increasingly skipping debates. They're increasingly avoiding media interviews unless it's with a, you know, friendly talk radio host or something. They're increasingly not doing town halls. They increasingly aren't doing events that aren't scripted in advance with screened audiences. As for these debates, there's no rule that candidates have to do them. It's just a norm unless there's some pushback from voters. I think we could be seeing a lot more of this.

Sally Mauk I think that's key is whether there is pushback from voters, or voters just don't care. The four Republicans who did attend Mitch Heuer, Matt Jette, Al Olszewski and Mary Todd all support Trump, and three of the four wrongly assert that the 2020 election wasn't valid. Here's what Mary Todd had to say about that.

"So, yes, I think this election was stolen, and who in their right mind would allow a baby to be stolen and not try to get it back?"

Sally Mauk Rob, Todd had other conspiracy theories, but I wonder how many Republican voters agree with her.

Rob Saldin Well, right. I mean, you have to think quite a few. Otherwise, we wouldn't be talking about it so much. And you know, that clip does in a way, kind of sum up the central message of the Republican Party right now. The election was stolen by Biden. I suppose if you really believe that, then all these efforts that we've seen, you know, back in late 2020 and early 2021 to fraudulently steal it back in the process of Congress's role in counting electoral votes or disputing the slate of electors sent by the states. Well, that makes some sense. Lots of people were on board for that. And you know, if that doesn't work, why, then you can try to use violence to keep Trump in power. That didn't work, either. But even now, over a year later, this is still somehow the animating force in GOP politics.

Sally Mauk Holly, Matt Jette was the only one of the Republican candidates who said the election was fair, and he also supports wearing masks and getting vaccinated against COVID. Here's what he said.

"I lost friends to it. Critique me all you want. At the end of day, I'm not going to throw you red meat like other candidates up here, so you can clap for him."

Sally Mauk He also said, Holly, he will not support Ryan Zinke if Zinke gets the nomination. That was interesting.

Holly Michels Yeah, this is a pretty interesting forum to listen to and just listening to Jette there and what you and Rob were talking about with Mary Todd, these are really hard to cover because you get these sound bites and then need to find space in the story that fits within a reader's attention span to kind of fact check what candidates are saying. And this debate sounds like it presented a lot of challenges there.

I think it's pretty interesting to hear Jette call some of these false claims "red meat" for an audience up in the Flathead. You know, it's a location in the state where a lot of these false claims about COVID, like you talked about, and the security of elections, have found the most success in taking root. Getting into Jette saying he couldn't support Zinke; there's a lot of information about that, actually, on his campaign website. He talks about when he heard Zinke was running, that was actually the reason he decided to move from Florida back to Montana specifically to run against Zinke. In his eyes, he's saying that Zinke is representing what's wrong with the political system. He's citing money that Zinke and his family have earned off the oil and gas industry. And we reported late last year from Zinke's financial disclosure information, it does show through his consulting firm he's done work for oil companies.

Jette also went after Zinke for something we hear Democrats criticize him for often, which is his time spent out of state. Jette saying Zinke doesn't really understand regular Montanans anymore. He's wealthy and spends time in California a lot, is what Jette is getting at. He also questions Zinke's patriotism, which is pretty interesting. And when he's doing that, he's citing investigations into Zinke's actions when he was Secretary of the Interior. Any time we write about that, Zinke's campaign will push back pretty hard about saying he hasn't been found to have done anything wrong from these investigations. But still, there's an amount of them that's worth noting. Then Jette also just generally criticizes Zinke for what he is saying is rhetoric that's dividing Montanans and saying that, you know, at this point in our political trajectory, that's a pretty dangerous thing to be doing in Jette's eyes.

Sally Mauk Certainly the western congressional race, both on the Democrat and Republican sides, is heating up and getting more and more interesting to follow as the days go on.

Rob, another law passed by the last Legislature has been put on hold by a district court judge while a lawsuit challenging it plays out. And this is a law that would have prevented transgender Montanans from changing the gender on their birth certificate unless they've had gender affirming surgery. And this may be one of the most intrusive laws passed by the last session.

Rob Saldin Yeah, probably so Sally. You know, it's also one of the big culture war issues right now, and we can see it playing out in various ways all across the country. You know, this particular ruling itself was centered on what strikes me as something of a technicality. The judge, as I understand it, said that the law was too vague. Given that problem right out of the gate, he didn't even get to the point of considering the constitutionality of the law's substance. So, the vagueness issue is presumably something the Legislature could fix if it wanted to. And then we'd be back to the larger issue of whether the law is constitutional. But of course, as you allude to Sally, the other thing that's just really notable here is that this is yet another court ruling that's blocked a law that came out of the last legislative session. And we've had a lot of these at this point.

Sally Mauk We certainly have. Another busy week in politics. Holly and Rob, thank you, I'll talk to you again soon.

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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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