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Snakes, scandals, and division among Democrats — Campaign Beat is back

The Democrat and Republican in the western district congressional race have only had one joint appearance so far — and it was a doozy. Both those candidates have new TV ads out — featuring a snake and a rodeo. And in the eastern district race, Dems seem torn over whether to support their nominee or the independent candidate.

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, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Montana's new western congressional District, Monica Tranel and Ryan Zinke have had only one face-to-face candidate forum so far, and that was last month in Missoula, and from the moderator's podium where I was standing, that forum gave voters a clear contrast between the two on several major issues.

Holly Michels Yeah, it really did. It was an interesting set up because questions came from the audience and the very first audience question was about access to abortion. And this forum was fairly shortly after the Dobbs decision. So obviously front of mind for a lot of people in his answers. I think. he told the crowd that he thought a total ban on abortion access was too harsh, and he raised the issue of situations where the life of a pregnant person is at risk or cases of rape or incest. And he said that he thought women "had the right to make sure she saves herself on these medical conditions." Back in 2014 when Zinke first ran for the House, he actually got criticism from fellow Republicans for his views on abortion, even though that race he was endorsed by the Montana Right to Life Association. He's previously backed bills that support parental notification for minors seeking abortion. He's supported legislation not to allow federal funding to go toward abortion. But where Republican criticism has come from is, in 2009, he opposed personhood bills that would have said life begins at conception.

For Tranel, she said pretty clearly she would vote for a woman's right to live life on their own terms and choose how, when and whether they become parents. She was also critical of Republicans, saying that not enough has been done to increase access to birth control, to reduce unwanted pregnancies. You know, I think through most of this debate, the candidates really show that they were pretty, you know, opposite ends of the spectrum on a lot of things.

Another place that really was highlighted to me was energy and climate change. Tranel praised the Inflation Reduction Act that recently became law, she said she likes the subsidies in there for adding solar arrays onto rooftops. She said she wants to see Montana capitalize on tapping wind energy to sell to major cities across the West. She also called for ending fossil fuel subsidies on public lands. Said she wants to see things like electric vehicle charging stations across the state Moving away from oil and gas. Normalizing driving electric cars.

Zinke, on the other hand, he said he doesn't see a way to sustain the US's manufacturing sector without fossil fuels for at least the next 50 years. He did say supported an all-of-the-above energy plan, wants to make sure energy use in the U.S. is produced domestically. But, you know, pretty different stances from those candidates on those two issues especially.


Sally Mauk Rob, Tranel was clearly the aggressor in that forum, repeatedly challenging Zinke and even at one point grabbing the mic out of his hand. And many of her diehard supporters applaud that approach. But I wonder how it plays with independents or others who haven't maybe yet made up their minds in this race.

Rob Saldin That's right, Sally. She certainly did have an aggressive style, even a kind of angry style at times. Now, of course, when we're talking about fence sitters, there are a lot fewer people on the fence than there were, say, a decade ago. And that's a major change in Montana politics. And it creates, among other things, a narrower path for Democrats. But even so, swing voters and ticket splitters haven't totally disappeared. And for Tranel to have a shot, she's going to need a twofer: a big turnout from the Democratic base and the vast majority of voters who are still open to supporting candidates from both parties. And I think you're right. For the base, dusting it up with Zinke and getting a little aggressive is fine, probably even a plus. But I do think that at least some Democrats worried after that debate, that just as a matter of optics, Tranel leaned into that aggressive, angry style a bit too much, concerned that that doesn't play well with voters on the fence. You know, sometimes a lighter touch can be more effective. And we actually see that side of her in her ads, but it wasn't really as much on display in that debate. But, you know, that said, the fundamentals of this campaign, Sally, are such that Tranel is the challenger. She's the underdog. Zinke While he isn't technically an incumbent, he has all the advantages of one. And so when you're in Tranel position, you've got to take some risks and go on the offensive. And I'm not sure it quite worked right in the first debate, but she does need to have that, kind of, aggressive approach to this race if she's going to have any chance of dislodging Zinke.

Sally Mauk And of course, there's always a catch-22 for a female candidate, is how far can you go in terms of being aggressive and do things that a male candidate might get away with a lot easier?

Rob Saldin Yeah, yeah, that's right. There is a gender dynamic at work and it's a tricky thing to navigate. You know, Tranel is trying to build up some name recognition. I think there's still a lot of people out there who don't know who she is in that sense. At least anything that gets Tranel some attention gets her name out there a little bit more. I think there is some advantage to that.

Sally Mauk Well Holly, Tranel has a new ad on television featuring a menacing snake. And here's that ad:

I'm Monica Tranel and I approve this message.

It's a trail of corruption. Ryan Zinke under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. 18 federal investigations. Internal watchdog says Ryan Zinke lied to investigators regarding a bid to operate a casino. Commercial development that Zinke is poised to benefit from chartered jets at taxpayer expense. The report concluded Zinke had violated ethics rules, that he hadn't been honest with investigators and had misused his office. Look it up for yourself.

Sally Mauk And Holly, this isn't the first Tranel ad featuring a snake. And in this one, the snake is slithering through a bunch of news reports about investigations into Zinke, his time as secretary of the Interior.

Holly Michels It's the return of the snake and return of, I think, Tranel — like Democrats have in the past — bringing up these investigations into Zinke, his actions while he was secretary. This ad comes on the heels of a new watchdog report that was released at the end of August that said Zinke intentionally misled investigators who are examining his actions as secretary. He did not act on a request from two tribes who were seeking to open a casino in Connecticut. This report said Zinke wasn't honest about his involvement during the investigation when he was talking to investigators. You know, Zinke's campaign has been critical of the timing of this report. They're saying it's being released on what they're saying is the eve of the election. But Tranel's campaign, obviously, as we're seeing here in this ad, is highlighting the findings as more evidence to voters that they're saying, trying to paint Zinke as corrupt. You know, these investigations came up in the primary. It might have been something that helped former state Senator Al Olszewski come pretty darn close to picking Zinke off in that primary. And, you know, this ad shows it's something Tranel probably sees as a weakness to keep bringing up. And I think we've talked about investigations before, they're going to keep coming up because I do think it's something where, Democrat Tranel in this case, feels like they've got a good line of attack against Zinke.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, is it a good line of attack? Like former President Trump, Zinke says he's merely a victim of the deep state. And a lot of his supporters agree.

Rob Saldin Right. But yeah, for sure it's a good line of attack. It's one of his big vulnerabilities. So, you know, they absolutely need to do what they can to exploit it. And this is the kind of stuff that would have tanked a lot of campaigns not that long ago. I'm old enough to remember way back in 2014 when John Walsh, who'd been appointed by Bullock to replace Max Baucus in the Senate, was forced to drop his campaign for full term because of a grad school plagiarism issue. And however blatant that transgression may have been, it does appear awfully minor and inconsequential relative to the kinds of scandals that we've quickly become accustomed to these days, including this pattern of Zinke's and corruption issues. And this stuff just keeps happening over and over. I mean, it's a real legit problem, and yet it's clearly not a deal breaker for him. He's under no real pressure to withdraw his candidacy, and it's not at all clear that he's going to pay any real price for this. That doesn't mean you don't press the case against him. I mean, that's what you've got to work with. But the reality is, as we discussed a few minutes ago, you know, voters are now much more dug in on one side or the other. Very little is going to dislodge them. There are fewer swing voters. And in that kind of political climate, it's difficult to have stuff break through. And so it's not clear how much traction Tranel can get with this. But it's one of her obvious plays here.

Sally Mauk Well, here's an excerpt of a new television ad from the Zinke campaign:

Before Biden, a gallon of gas cost a couple of bucks. Groceries were affordable, no inflation. Putin was scared of America's military might. It was a Montanan who led the charge for affordable American oil and gas. Montana kept America mighty. 23 years as a Navy SEAL. And that Montanan always came home to Whitefish.

Sally Mauk And this ad, Rob, goes on to say that Zinke will bring back "affordability, decency and sanity."

Rob Saldin You know, I actually think it's really nicely done. And it's seeped in iconic western Montana imagery with a heavy dose of feel-good nostalgia and Americana. We see Zinke at ease with fellow Montanans at a small-town rodeo and so forth. There's a little God talk, some fishing, some high school football, some small town café chit chat, protecting public lands. These are all good images for him. And they collectively push back against what I think is his other big weakness beyond the corruption issue, and that's the suggestion that he's not really one of us, that he's a carpetbagger with more ties to Santa Barbara these days than the Flathead. His campaign does seem to recognize that they need to push back on that because that is a narrative. If it really takes hold, it can be a powerful thing. We're actually seeing a great example of how powerful that can be right now in the Pennsylvania Senate race where the Republican candidate, Dr. Oz, is just getting killed on that by the Fetterman campaign. But then on top of all that happy content, you know, Zinke does, as that clip showed, briefly take a couple of shots at Democrats, mentioning Biden by name, although he doesn't mention Tranel. He hits the inflation issue, which is definitely a good talking point for Republicans this cycle. He also suggests that Biden has been weak on Russia's war on Ukraine. That one doesn't work very well on a substantive level, but I suppose it does set up a transition for the narrator to mention that Zinke was in the military, in case anyone needs a reminder of that. But all in all, I thought the ad covers a lot of ground and works very well for Zinke.

Sally Mauk Holly The eastern district congressional race is kind of flying under the radar with all the attention on the western district race. And incumbent Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale is the heavy favorite in that eastern district race. Democrats seem torn about who to support, their own nominee, Penny Ronning, or the independent candidate Gary Buchanan.

Holly Michels Yeah, it's been a pretty interesting race. I am out here in the eastern district in Helena, and over the Friday before Labor Day, I was reporting at a picnic put on by unions, and Buchanan was there speaking. Ronning was in other places in the district that day, but I think this is one of the most interesting things and gets what you're talking about of Democrats struggling, of deciding whose support. Here is the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which is the biggest union in the state. And they made clear they're not always a rubber stamp for a Democratic candidate, but tend to generally fall behind them. They're backing Buchanan in this race and not Ronning. And I think that came as a surprise to a lot of people, Ronning included.

Generally, political watchers seem to think Buchanan, who's a financial manager in Billings, might have a leg up on Ronning, especially looking at campaign finance reports where Buchanan's actually outperformed Ronning. She's a former city council person in Billings, and I think they're both known in that community. But I don't know what kind of name recognition they've got elsewhere in the district. You know, I think it's fair to say there's Democrats in that eastern district who might be looking at Buchanan, just think he's got the best chance against Republican Matt Rosendale. But there's also Dems who are just going to vote for the party's candidate. So I think there's concern for both Ronning and Buchanan that they end up splitting the vote. And it's a district that's already really heavily favored Republican. So, looking at Rosendale, his chances are probably pretty good to begin with. I'm pretty curious to see how it turns out between Ronning and Buchanan.

Sally Mauk Well, there are a lot of intangibles going into November, and we'll continue to try to sort it out next week. Holly and Rob, thank you. Talk to you then.

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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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