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Will overturning Roe change MT's political landscape? Who's a real Montanan?

A Supreme Court leak adds more drama to the 2022 midterm election in Montana and elsewhere. Overturning Roe will also drive a spate of new anti-abortion bills in the next Legislature. New campaign ads from both parties try to define who's a "real Montanan."

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, let's start with the story of the week, which is, of course, the Supreme Court leak that the court is poised to reverse Roe vs. Wade and make legal abortions something for individual states to decide. Without a federal law, several states are ready to make abortion illegal immediately after the court rules, but Montana won't be one of them, at least for now.

Holly Michels Yeah, we have some pretty unique protections in the state that uphold access to pre-viability abortions, and that's tied to our state Constitution and specifically the right to privacy in that document. There's a 1999 opinion from our state Supreme Court that's commonly referred to as the Armstrong opinion, and that held that those privacy protections ensure a person can access an abortion before the point of viability. So because we have that in place in Montana, even if Roe falls, which is expected to happen in June, Montanans still will be able to access abortions.

I do think it's important to note that Armstrong is not without its own legal challenges it's facing. Earlier this year, Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen asked the Montana Supreme Court to reverse a district court judge's order that put a halt to three new abortion laws the Legislature passed in 2021. And as a part of that appeal, Knudsen also asked the court to overturn its Armstrong ruling. So for now, in Montana we have this additional layer ensuring the right to access an abortion, but it is being challenged. And I think even with Armstrong, Republican lawmakers have been anticipating an end to Roe and then hoping the state Supreme Court here will overturn Armstrong. And they've been discussing legislation that might come as soon as the 2023 legislative session, so just next year, to further restrict access to abortions in Montana. One legislator I talked to, a Republican who's not seeking reelection but has been at the forefront and brought a lot of the legislation to limit access in the past, she said she wouldn't be surprised to see something like a six week ban proposed here, similar to what we've seen in other states.

I think another part of this, too, Republicans hold a majority in the Legislature and the governor's office, so it's pretty likely whatever legislation comes will pass. And then even if the court does uphold Armstrong, we've heard Republican lawmakers in most notably Derek Skees of Kalispell and John Fuller of Whitefish actually criticize the state's Constitution and call for revising it specifically in part because of their opposition to abortion. And Republicans are just a few seats shy of a supermajority in the Legislature, so that would expand their ability to do things like put referendums to the Constitution on the ballot for voters to consider. So, I think there's a lot of things in play right now.

Sally Mauk Rob, abortion is always an issue in many legislative and congressional races to some degree or another. But this pending Supreme Court ruling has put the issue very near the top in 2022. Do you think it will be a tipping point and if so, tipped in whose favor?

Rob Saldin Well, Sally, assuming something like this is in fact the final opinion, it does have the potential of shifting the political dynamic for the midterm in the favor of the Democrats, I would think. And that stems from a couple key points. You know, first look at public opinion. It's been remarkably steady on abortion basically since Roe. The key takeaway is that the passion that you see out there on the part of advocates, be they pro-choicers or pro-lifers, that obscures what's really a deeply ambivalent feeling out there among the American public when it comes to abortion. Now, there's very clear support for maintaining abortion rights within certain limits, and the public doesn't want to see Roe overturned. But they also really don't like the extremes on either end.

The second thing I'd note, which we touched on a bit a few weeks ago, is that a big part of what's made this a good issue for Republicans over the last 50 years is that there is a sense out there on the American right that they got cheated in terms of the process by which abortion came to be legal. One might quibble with aspects of that perspective, but the point is that it's a deeply held view on the American right, and Republicans have been very effective at harnessing that. Well, now that dynamic, I think, could very easily flip. If Dobbs takes out Roe, you're going to have a lot of people feel as though they've had something taken away from them in an illegitimate way, something they've taken for granted. And that certainly could help galvanize the Republican base, which tends to drop off in midterms, but I also wonder if it might extend well beyond the Democratic base. As we see this thing play out state by state across the country and perhaps even here in Montana, there are going to be some very severe restrictions and that's going to make the new abortion regime very real, very quickly. It's not just going to be some abstract culture-war issue that for those looking to scrap Roe is always just a little bit out of reach. Right? it's going to come home to people.

Sally Mauk As you pointed out, Rob, Republicans have been campaigning on doing away with legal abortion for decades. And here they are on the cusp of getting what they wanted. But I don't see them gloating about it. In fact, among Republicans in Montana and elsewhere, the response has been kind of tepid.

Rob Saldin Right. You wonder if this is a situation where the dog has caught the car. And I think we do see a little bit of a tell that Republicans are worried about this. In general their responses, Sally, as you note, haven't been about the substance of this leaked opinion, it's been focused on the impropriety of the leak itself. And that would seem to suggest that they're perhaps a bit nervous concerning the political fallout of the actual opinion. So to the extent the public debate is focused on first trimester abortions, which account for the overwhelming majority of abortions, and to the extent Democrats are able to talk about a right being taken away, about privacy, about the extreme ideas being batted around by some Republicans, well, that's pretty solid ground. You know, whether or not that's enough to overcome all the headwinds the Democrats are facing this cycle, well, that's another matter. But at least this opens up a desperately needed opportunity for them. And I think Republicans, to the extent they're feeling at least a little bit nervous, are probably right to.

Sally Mauk Holly, given Montana's protection of legal abortion, at least for now, and given the likelihood it will soon be illegal in bordering states like Idaho and Wyoming and the Dakotas, is it possible Montana would become a destination for out-of-state women seeking an abortion?

Holly Michels Yeah, I do think that's possible. You know, like you said, all the border states around us have some form of a trigger law, which means it's legislation in place to outlaw abortion if Roe were to fall. This triggers, in our surrounding states, ban abortion in nearly all cases. There are some exceptions for rape or incest or if a person's life is at risk. But Montana could become a place that people travel to, though I think it's important to point out just because abortion might be legal in Montana doesn't mean it's really accessible. There's costs associated with travel, logistics and all of that. And we've also seen clinics in Montana talk about potential increase in demand, which might make it hard to find appointments. So, be interesting to see how that plays out with all the states surrounding us poised to have some kind of trigger go into effect soon.

Sally Mauk Certainly this leak this week has set in motion a lot of potential outcomes that will unfold as the weeks and months go on here.

Rob, there are some new campaign ads out in the western district congressional race, and one is by a group called Montanans for a Better Congress. They support Democrat Monica Tranel. And the ad goes after Republican Ryan Zinke for having a mansion in California and after Democrat Cora Neumann for having lived in California until a few years ago. Here's the ad.

"Turns out, two of the candidates in the ongoing election for Montana's western district are from California. We know because we looked it up. There it is, Ryan Zinke's mansion in Santa Barbara. And according to her financial disclosure documents, Cora Neumann sold her home in Los Angeles in 2020 and moved to Montana to run for Congress. Don't get scammed. Vote for Monica Tranel, a lifelong Montanan who can beat Ryan Zinke."

Sally Mauk And Rob, this ad is basically saying vote for Tranel because she's the only real Montanan in the race.

Rob Saldin Right. Things all of a sudden are getting a little testy in this Democratic primary. But notably, as you say, Sally, this ad, it's not from the Tranel campaign, it's from an outside group supporting her. In the past, Tranel has kind of nodded in this direction and made some insinuations of this sort concerning Neumann, but has never made the point so directly and powerfully as this outside group did.

Similarly, Neumann hasn't done much to draw distinctions between herself and Tranel either, I don't think. And part of that, you know, may just have to do with the fact that there aren't that many distinctions to be drawn in terms of policy.

But I've also picked up on a sentiment out there on the Democratic side this cycle that it's really important not to attack your opponent and to play nice and this type of thing. And while there's often a bit of that at work in primaries, it seems a little stronger this cycle to me. And to the extent that dynamic is at work, you know, maybe you can understand the rationale in the sense, you know, you don't want to weaken the eventual nominee with a bruising primary fight that airs a bunch of dirty laundry and whatnot. But it's also the case that at the end of the day, this is a competitive election. These two candidates want to be the nominee, and I would think it should be okay to draw some distinctions. Additionally, a tough primary can actually help a candidate get battle tested for the general election. So I'm not sure avoiding the kind of sharp elbows that we see in this ad from an outside group in the primary is necessarily always a good thing for the eventual nominee.

Sally Mauk Well, you can be certain that whoever the Democratic nominee is, the Zinke campaign will not be gloves-off in the general election campaign.

Holly, speaking of the Zinke campaign, they're upset about a new ad by Republican Al Olszewski that also accuses Zinke of being a Californian and not a Montanan. And it's interesting to me that both Democrat and Republican candidates are going after Zinke on the issue of being a fake Montanan.

Holly Michels We've seen these criticisms against Zinke a lot. I think this came up as long as he's been a federal-level candidate in Montana. This time around Zinke's campaign is contending some of the claims in this Al Olszewski ad are false and sent TV stations a letter demanding they stop running it. I think that's a pretty common move. I think I've seen something like that happen in every election I've covered, where a campaign has asked stations to take ads down, though I think normally they don't come down. The biggest thing Zinke's campaign is taking issue with here is in this ad, it calls Zinke a "California Millionaire" and at one point just flat out says he lives in California. And his time out of state, like you guys both said something, Democrats and Republicans have both come after him for.

There was a pretty bombshell story that Politico actually ran last year that showed all these connections Zinke and his wife have to Santa Barbara. His wife owns property there. The campaign says she inherited it from her mother when she passed away. And this Politico story focuses a lot on using social media posts show just how often the Zinkes were in California. Zinke's campaign commented for that story and said, yes his wife has connections here he travels a lot but he's always had his residence in Montana.

I think I remember back in 2014, Zinke ran against Democrat John Lewis for the House, and I think it was in a forum at one point, Zinke was pressed on and he just said his address in Whitefish, just blurted it out. Even that came with its problems, because if you look, there were permits to run a bed and breakfast there. So people were wondering, 'Hey, how are you living there if it's a B&B'? His campaign has said there's always plans for the Zinkes to still live at the residence. They've also, you know, at times pointed to he's voted in every election in Montana except, I think there was a high school bond in 2008 he didn't vote on. He's never applied for a California driver's license. Just all these points that they bring up cycle after cycle. But it is fair to say there's no question Zinke spends time in California. His wife has ties there. He was also stationed there in the military, but campaigned, pretty aggressively, came out against this Olszewski ad. You know, this matter of where Zinke spends time is just going to keep coming up through the rest of this primary and then we'll see it in the general election quite a bit as well.

Sally Mauk Short of staking out one of his homes, it would be hard to prove or disprove his residency except for, obviously, legally he is a resident of Montana. Rob and Holly, we're out of time. Thank you both. I'll talk to you soon.

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.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.