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Zinke ad omits important context; Daines plays to his base; Dems take the gloves off

Sen. Steve Daines wants to protect kids from gay TV characters, and compares women to sea turtles and eagles. Ryan Zinke touts his record as former Interior Secretary in a new ad, despite being fired from that job. And Democrats Cora Neumann and Monica Tranel get testy over a super PAC attack ad.

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. Sitting in this week for Rob is University of Montana School of Journalism Professor of Political Reporting Lee Banville.

Sally Mauk Holly, we got the tragic news recently that one of the Democrats running for the eastern congressional district, Mark Sweeney, had suddenly passed away at home. And Sweeney was a state legislator, Holly, who was much liked by people on both sides of the aisle.

Holly Michels Yeah, this was pretty sad news to wake up to last week. And like you said, Sweeney was well-respected. We saw statements from Democrats, Republicans all over Montana after he passed away talking about his public service to the state. Like you said, he was a legislator from Phillipsburg who is running in the eastern district for the U.S. House in the Democratic primary. And even though he lives in the western district, he's from Miles City originally and has spent about half of his life in eastern Montana and most recently in his role as a state legislator he was working pretty hard on issues at the Montana State Hospital when he died.

Sally Mauk Sweeney was one of three Democrats running in the eastern congressional primary, and he was the presumed front-runner. His name is going to remain on the ballot because they didn't have time to get it changed before those ballots are mailed out. But what happens, Holly, if he posthumously gets the most votes?

Holly Michels So, if that were to happen and Sweeney is the winner in that primary, the state Democratic Party, they'll hold a nominating convention and at that convention they'd select a replacement candidate. That would be the process if it ends up Sweeney wins that primary.

Sally Mauk Lee, Senator Steve Daines is one of five Republican senators who sent a letter to a board that guides TV ratings, urging them to label shows that have gay characters so parents can, quote, protect their kids from seeing such programs. This is clearly, I think, a big stride into the culture wars for Senator Daines.

Lee Banville Yeah, I mean, we've seen this sort of as a series of moves by, in particular, Republicans to use LGBTQ issues to establish themselves as, quote unquote, pro-family or pro traditional family values. And so what we're seeing is, this is, once again, the senator choosing to enter into a discussion that is really not a heated public debate right now, but rather kind of a way to sort of signal to potential supporters where he's standing on these issues that I think Republicans are hitting again and again. And I think you'll continue to hear it throughout this election year. And obviously he's not even running. So, I mean, this is the thing he's really trying to plant a flag in to kind of signal to people where he is on these issues.

Sally Mauk Holly, In the western district congressional race, the Republican front-runner, Ryan Zinke, has his first TV ad on the air. Here's the ad.

"America is not weak. This administration is. We need new leadership. When I was secretary, we ended our addiction to foreign oil, and gas was about two bucks a gallon. We made huge investments to restore Montana's national parks and forests. We secured our borders and protected our communities. I got it done for Montana once, and we'll do it again."

Sally Mauk And this ad, Holly, fails to mention that Zinke, he got fired as Interior secretary for corruption.

Holly Michels Yeah, that is pretty different from, as we've talked about before, ones from the Democratic side where the ad needs to do a lot of work introducing the candidate. Like you said, this doesn't have a lot of details about his time, just talks about it like the viewer kind of already knows. It feels like more of a reminder. If you think times were good before, remember, that's when I was secretary of the Interior. Gas was cheaper. Stuff like that he's talking about. I think it's interesting, too, the ad also touches on things like immigration. You know, calls the Biden administration weak but doesn't do it by name. And I think is kind of honestly some pretty low-key criticism compared to what we've heard of other GOP candidates who are, you know, going so far as to call into question the legitimacy of Biden's presidency.

But on the topic of presidents, I think this is pretty interesting. Like you pointed out, this talks about Zinke being a cabinet member, but you never actually hear the name of the president he served, which is, of course, Trump. And I think that allows him to sort of sidestep how Zinke left the administration; you know, he resigned under a cloud of several investigations into his actions. So I think you know, not getting into specifics help him kind of avoid that in this ad.

But I do think we're going to see still Trump play a role in this race. Trump is actually holding a Tele-rally for Zinke on May 16th, and has endorsed him, so it's still kind of there. But I think if you look at how sort of extreme Trump's presence was in something like the 2018 Senate race here, this just all feels much more calm. And I think that's a way to not have to bring up how Zinke's time with the administration ended.

Sally Mauk Whoever wins a Democratic primary will for sure bring that up.

Lee, in the wake of the leak that the Supreme Court is poised to void Roe vs. Wade, Democrats tried to pass a bill that would have codified Roe, but it died in the Senate this week. And Senator Steve Daines helped kill the bill, and his comments against it made national headlines. Here's what he said before the vote.

"If you were to take or destroy the eggs of a sea turtle — and I said the eggs, not the hatchlings — that's also a penalty, but the eggs. The criminal penalties are severe, up to a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. Now, why? Why do we have laws in place to protect the eggs of a sea turtle or the eggs of eagles? Because when you destroy an egg, you're killing a pre-born baby sea turtle or a pre-born baby eagle. Yet when it comes to a pre-born human baby rather than a sea turtle, that baby would be stripped of all protections in all 50 states under the Democrats bill they'll be voting on tomorrow."

Sally Mauk He's comparing pregnant women to sea turtles and eagles, Lee.

Lee Banville Yes, it does seem that that is what he is saying. I think what's interesting is this vote was actually an effort by Democrats to force Republicans to go on the record on the question of abortion and abortion rights, since most polls indicate some level of abortion rights are widely supported by the American public. And what we see here is Daines is not just going to vote against it, he actually chose to go to the floor and make the statement. In so doing, there are two options. One is this is truly how he believes and he felt this strongly and he wanted to say this. Or the other possibility, if it's a political calculus, is that he is more worried about not appearing conservative enough than he is worried about offending women who would listen to that statement, or men and women who would listen to that statement and say, how do you possibly make this kind of equation between animals and women. Either way, I think it was an odd choice of analogies to use, or comparisons to make. But I think what it does is it shows, I think, how much he is not that concerned about how people who support a woman's right to choose would pose a electoral threat to him.

Sally Mauk If the goal was to get headlines he accomplished that goal for sure.

And Lee, in the western congressional race, Democrat Monica Tranel's new ad also addresses abortion. And here is that ad.

"I'm the mother of three daughters, and I refuse to let the Supreme Court take away our freedoms. I've spent my career fighting for Montanans freedoms, and I'll fight just as hard in Congress to guarantee a woman's right to make her own personal decisions. Ryan Zinke voted to ban abortion in Montana. This is about more than abortion. It's about controlling women. And I won't let Ryan Zinke or anyone else take away our freedom."

Sally Mauk And there's no ambiguity there, Lee.

No, I mean, and it's important to remember this isn't about the general election campaign yet. She is hoping to take this message to the entire voting public of Montana. Right now, she is in a hard-fought primary. And so what we're seeing here is her effort to clarify and rally support around her candidacy so that she wins the primary in June. And then we can start talking about. But it's interesting to note, she talks about none of her primary opponents. She's really directing her criticism at Zinke, but she's making the case, 'vote for me in June so that I can take on the Zinke in November.'

Sally Mauk Holly, the three Democratic candidates, Tranel, Tom Winter and Cora Neumann in that western congressional race, held a public forum in Missoula this week that went very much like other forums candidates have held so far — until about an hour in, Tranel and Neumann had a very testy exchange over an ad a super PAC that supports Tranel is running, attacking Neumann for only moving back to Montana a few years ago. And here's the exchange they had beginning with Neumann.

"Unfortunately, my opponent, Monica Tranel, has a super PAC that's running lies and ads against me on TV. And while she claims to also stand against money in politics, she has not spoken up and condemned these lies on TV. This is everything that's wrong with politics. We do not, as Democrats, need to be taking each other down at a time so delicate in our history. We need to be talking about the issues that matter to Montanans housing instability, jobs, supporting our small businesses. And when I am in Congress, I will fight to make sure not only that every voice is heard, but that we get. Money out of politics," Tranel said.

"I would like a chance to respond to that personal attack that we said we weren't going to be doing," Tranel said. "So, by definition, a super PAC isn't mine. And anything that's not true, you can surely correct."

"You have the opportunity to also condemn it," Neumann responded.

"If there is something that's not true, Cora, then point out what it is," Tranel said.

Sally Mauk Holly, I think the gloves are clearly off between these two candidates.

Holly Michels Yeah, we were both there in the room when this happened, and definitely the tone felt a little different. And, you know, we've talked about in this race before, it felt like the candidates were not really engaging in treating each other with kid gloves. And this, I think, marks a change as we're getting closer to the election and ballots are going out. Things are feeling pretty serious now.

The ad that this references taps into a topic that I think we've revisited a couple times now, which is candidates working to paint their opponents as carpetbaggers. The ad that this is all about, it goes after both Zinke and Neumann. So they're both from California. We've heard Zinke and Neumann both push back on those and share their biographies to sort of counter those claims. But, you know, I think in a state that has a lot of angst about growth and directs a lot of that towards Californians, it's clear the group running this ad thinks it will be an effective hit. In the ad it shows a screengrab of a financial disclosure that Neumann filed when she ran for the Senate here in 2020 that shows that she sold a house in California that same year. And the ad claims she moved here in 2020 to run for Senate. Neumann's campaign has said she moved back the year prior, in 2019, and they've said it was a long held goal of the family to return to Bozeman. This ad ends by telling voters Tranel is a lifelong Montanan who can beat Zinke, and that's presumably in part because she wouldn't be as susceptible to this 'carpetbagger' claim given Tranel was raised in Montana's and spent most of her life and professional career here.

Sally Mauk Lee, Tranel is right that the ad attacking Neumann is not from her campaign, but from a super PAC. And that's often the case in many elections. The nastiest ads come from super PACs that support a candidate, and the candidate then gets to say, 'I'm not responsible for that ad.' But they're also not unhappy that the ads are on the air.

Lee Banville No, absolutely not. And I mean, what we see is often times — although it's not a coordinated strategy, because if you coordinate the strategy, you're violating the law — the candidate knows that the super PAC is going to go after their opponent in the harshest possible way so that they can instead, as we actually heard earlier, focus on an issue, right? Say, I'm going to protect a woman's freedom. I'm not going to talk about Cora Neumann. I'm going to let an affiliated organization that's not connected to me, not my campaign, run that ad. And I know I can run another message that sort of hits a different issue and stays more, quote unquote positive, even though, as you mention, this is a campaign that's going to get rougher in the next couple of weeks. And in the end, we'll know who paid for these ads, but we won't know until after the primary. And so what we'll see is they'll be able to spend money to support Monica Tranel and we won't really know who was behind it until, frankly, we know who the Democratic candidate is.

Sally Mauk Right. Well, as you say, I think we can expect more such attack ads to start showing up on the air between now and June 7th. And, of course, many ballots are in the mail already. So some people will be voting actually quite soon.

Lee and Holly, thank you so much.

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.

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'.