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Voter turnout, a deceased candidate and the absurdity of Super PACS

Super PACs may be following the law but are they playing fair? Ryan Zinke's new ad wants to reassure voters he doesn't live in California. Democrats may have to reckon with a deceased candidate winning the eastern congressional district primary. And the contested western congressional district could boost voter turnout in this mid-term election.

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, on the eve of Tuesday's primary election, I think all eyes are on the new western district Congressional races. And we have some new information about a couple of Super PACs that don't necessarily shine a good light on a couple of the candidates. And the first is a PAC run by Republican Ryan Zinke called SEAL PAC that was formed to supposedly support military veterans running for office. But Roll Call has reported the PAC has supported many non-veterans and has spent most of the millions of dollars it has raised, not on the candidates, but on "operating costs."

Holly Michels Yeah, this is something that we're seeing Zinke's opponents, especially former State Senator Al Olszewski in that Republican primary, really highlighting as we're getting close to Election Day here. Like you said, this analysis done by Roll Call found that nearly a quarter of the candidates the SEAL PAC backed in this year's midterms aren't veterans, even though the group says its mission is to elect conservative veterans. The list of politicians it supported that aren't veterans includes a lot of Trump loyalists. That's people like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise and more. And like you said, this report also talks about that a lot of the money, about 87% of what the group has reported spending this cycle, which is about $5.8 million overall, has not actually gone to candidates, but instead has been spent on operating costs. Another point this report makes is that the candidates this PAC has supported have actually gone on to, once in office, oppose legislation that would have increased benefits for veterans. The majority of candidates this PAC supported recently voted against a bill that would cover health care for veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits. And that's legislation that has been supported by veteran advocacy groups. So, you know, we've seen Olszewski bring this up a lot pretty frequently. He's also pointing out, Olszewski is, that the SEAL PAC has given to PACs that have then turned and supported Zinke's campaign, though Zinke's campaign has pretty aggressively said they're not associated with that in any way. But it is definitely something that his opponents are seizing here in the final days of the race.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, another Super PAC called Montanans for a Better Congress supports Democrat Monica Tranel in the western Congressional race and they've run an ad attacking fellow Democrat Cora Neumann. Tranel has denied any involvement with this Super PAC, which would be illegal. But it turns out her husband Greg is one of a handful of donors to that PAC.

Rob Saldin Yeah, right, Sally. And, you know, I suppose that does appear to be a bit unseemly, but to me at least, not really any more unseemly than the whole Super PAC thing in general. You know, another way of thinking about this is that it shouldn't be entirely surprising that Tranel's husband wants her to win. He did contribute a rather small amount relative to the other donors to that Super PAC. You know, I think the critics are right insofar as it shines a light on the ridiculousness of some of our campaign finance rules. But of course, Monica Tranel and her husband didn't create those rules. And kind of the broader context here to me is that a lot of Democrats view so-called dark money as one of the major problems in American politics. And that's fine. There's certainly plenty of questions and critiques that are entirely reasonable about the role of money in our campaigns. But our campaign finance system is what it is. And short of getting a whole bunch of new Supreme Court justices, I don't see any reason to think it's going to change anytime soon. Yet sometimes Democrats seem to think that they should react to this reality by unilaterally disarming and piously denouncing these Super PACs. And there's been at least some of this kind of righteous indignation in this race we've seen and talked about on our show in previous weeks. You know, Neumann went after Tranel in a town hall about how terrible it is that there is a Super PAC supporting her. And there have been some letters to the editor here recently saying how shocking and appalling and divisive it is and how it shows that Tranel lacks integrity. But the ad from the Super PAC in question here strikes me as really fairly mild as these things go. This is a competitive election, after all, and it's not clear that there's anything inaccurate about it either. So if people are really wringing their hands about this being divisive, you know, they'd better brace themselves for what's coming in the general election.

Sally Mauk I think, Rob, it's the pretense that the candidates are somehow separate from what these Super PACs are doing.

Rob Saldin Yeah. And I guess, Sally, I'd just say that that's part of the silliness about Super PACs in general. To me, it's not necessarily indicative that there's anything all that unusual going on in this particular case. But yeah, certainly there's all kinds of things one might critique about the way we run our campaign finance system.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, it appears that Monica Tranel has outraised Cora Neumann in the most recent fundraising period, and that would be a first since the campaign began that Tranel came out ahead in fundraising. What should we make of that? Do you think it's a momentum shift in that race?

Holly Michels It's really hard to say, but it is pretty noteworthy, I think. This is the first time, like you said, Tranel has been the lead in fundraising. In the last reporting period, she brought in $207,000 compared to Neumann's $162,000. So, pretty significant difference there. It also looks like she pretty aggressively spent what she had. She ended up for the period leaving about $100,000 cash in the bank, whereas Neumann left about $377,000. So that money did give Tranel opportunity to run advertising that could help her here at the end of the election. Neumann still overall has brought in more than Tranel over the election with $1.3 million to Tranel's $882,000. But this shift is I think interesting. We've talked before about there's just not good public polling in Montana. So with that void, we look to fundraising as an indication of support. Though, probably good to be cautious there because we do have a pretty good example of that being faulty. Looking at the 2018 Democratic House primary, we had John Heenan and Grant Kier way ahead of Kathleen Williams in the money game, but then she ended up winning that primary. But this is a race, I think more than any other we've covered, people I'm talking to really don't have an idea of who might come out on top. So this could be indicative of shifting support. But I think election night, this is going to be the race to be watching.

Sally Mauk Rob, on the Republican side, Ryan Zinke has come on strong with some new TV ads here on the eve of the election. And here's one addressing his Montana roots. Ryan Zinke "My grandmother was a frontier teacher outside Ritchie, Montana. My grandfather helped build the Fort Peck Dam. I grew up in a small Montana railroad and timber town, was high school president and won the state football championship. Other than serving my country as a Navy SEAL, I lived in our family home in Whitefish my whole life and still do."

Sally Mauk This ad ends, Rob, with Zinke and his wife sitting together with their dog. But it's noteworthy that the ad doesn't claim his wife also lives in Whitefish because apparently she lives in California.

Rob Saldin Yeah, right. He's lived in Montana his whole life, but apparently by himself. That recent Politico story, right, Sally, revealed that his wife claims residency in California. So I don't know if she was maybe up for a visit or something when they were taping that ad. It's an awkward situation, to be sure, and it's getting a lot of attention. And I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more about this in the general election, assuming Zinke wins the nomination next week. I guess the thing that seems notable to me is that the Zinke campaign is sufficiently concerned about these carpetbagger allegations that they felt the need to cut an ad that responds to them directly. So, I mean, that means just on a practical level that they're directing quite a lot of resources to pushing back on this. And I don't think we've seen anything quite like that before. So it shows that they're taking it as a serious threat. And it's probably also worth noting that whatever turns up about his wife and the amount of time he spends in Santa Barbara and everything else, he does have some biographical details to highlight in response.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, there's been so much attention, understandably, on the new western congressional seat that the eastern district race has been overshadowed. And besides the incumbent Republican, Matt Rosendale, I'm guessing few Montanans could name any of the other candidates, Republican or Democrat, in that race. And that must thrill Mr. Rosendale.

Holly Michels Yeah, you're right. I think this has been a pretty mellow race so far. On the Republican side, back in February, the state GOP actually invoked a[n] RNC rule that allowed them to endorse Rosendale and support him in this primary, even though you generally really don't see parties getting into contested primaries. And that rule that they triggered is actually based on a candidate being unopposed in the primary and they invoked it before the filing deadline had even come in Montana. And there are, like you said, other Republicans running against Rosendale in that race, though I think you're right that a lot of people probably would be hard-pressed to name them. It's Kyle Austin, who's a pharmacist based out of Billings, Charles Walking Child, who's an environmental contractor in Helena, and James Boyette, who lives in Bozeman and has worked for a medical technology company. But none of them have reported any significant fundraising activity, and we haven't really seen much campaigning from them either. And the Democratic side of this race really was shaken up in May when Mark Sweeney, who is the best known candidate, state legislator, and held other elected offices before: he died in early May. So that's left the field with Penny Ronning, who's a former Billings City Council member and Billings resident Skylar Williams as the candidate[s] in that race. I think the most interesting thing to be watching election night for this eastern district is that Sweeney's name, because of when he passed away, it does stay on the ballot. So if he does end up winning, Democrats are going to need to appoint someone to run. So that's not out of the realm of possibility. So we'll see how that shakes out on election night.

Sally Mauk Rob, it does appear that independent candidate Gary Buchanan will have enough signatures to get on the November ballot in that eastern congressional district. And could he be a dark horse in that race?

Rob Saldin Well, maybe, Sally. At this point, I think there's actually a good case to be made that Buchanan would be the stronger candidate than the Democratic nominee. But it's also very hard for me to see how Buchanan or the Democratic candidate stand any chance if the anti-Rosendale vote is split. Now, one interesting scenario is what happens — as you brought up, Holly — what happens if Sweeney wins the Democratic nomination? It's a big if, of course. But if that happens, the party would need to hold a special nominating convention to pick a new nominee. But I wonder if they'd at least consider throwing their support behind Buchanan. We have seen instances of this kind of strategic calculation on the part of Democrats in some other states. All of these cases are a little different, but in recent primaries in Georgia and Idaho, for instance, you had some Democrats switch over in the Republican primary to give a boost to what they saw as a non-crazy candidate facing a primary challenge. But probably the most analogous case is the Utah Senate race in which the Democratic Party chose not to nominate a candidate of their own and to instead support Evan McMullin, who is a former Republican, a former CIA agent, Capitol Hill staffer who's running as an independent against the incumbent Republican, Mike Lee. So I wonder if some Democrats here in Montana might be wondering about doing something similar on the grounds that that's the most plausible way of defeating Matt Rosendale.

Sally Mauk Holly, finally, some people have already voted via absentee ballot. Can we tell by that what the ultimate voter turnout might be? Midterm elections are historically low turnout, but could this one be an exception?

Holly Michels Yeah, it's hard to tell. But, you know, a week or two ago, we checked and we were tracking pretty similar to how we looked in the 2018 midterm when interest was pretty high. So we could see a decent turnout. Right now where we sit, we have already 38% of absentee ballots that have been sent out to people have been mailed back to county elections offices. And that puts turnout right now statewide at already about 25%. So I think in the '18 race, we saw about 40% turnout.

Sally Mauk Well, we will soon know both the turnout and who won and we'll break those results down next week. Holly and Rob, thank you. And I'll talk to you then.

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'.