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Campaign Beat: Abortion, immigration and unheeded court orders

The Gianforte administration picks another fight with the judiciary. Abortion and immigration are two national issues influencing state elections. A Republican candidate dons body armor. And a former Republican leader says she's voting to send a Democrat to Congress.

Campaign Beat is 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. Here's Sally.

Sally Mauk Holly, the State Health Department is defying a court order that would allow transgender Montanans to change their birth certificates based on a change in their gender identity. And this has become what seems to be a huge legal fight. And I'm not sure of the endgame here.

Holly Michels I don't know if many people are. This is what would be the second time, I think, if you asked Judge Moses in Billings for his thinking, that the state has defied his order, that he made pretty clear in court this week he has blocked the state from enforcing any part of the Senate Bill 280 that passed out of the last legislative session. That's a law that would dictate how transgender Montanans can update their birth certificates. And it was passed by Republicans who were frustrated from back in 2017 when then Democratic Governor Steve Bullock put in this process, which would allow people to update that vital document just through a form. Using that form and that process, which was part of an administrative rule from 2017, is what Judge Moses ordered the state to go back to using as the process for that this week. But the state, in a press release after the judge's order, said it would not do that. It would leave in place the administrative rule that actually just became final in the first week of September that actually blocks people from making any updates to their birth certificates unless there is a situation where there is a data entry error when the document was created. So we've got this standoff now. Reporters asked the state for clarification about if they thought their stance would put them at odds with Moses's order, and they said they were waiting for a written order. Though important to clarify, Moses did issue — and these are not super common — but an order from the bench which has an immediate effect, just the same as a written order would down the road. So it's a pretty interesting situation we're in and curious to see how it plays out.

Sally Mauk Well, it does seem to follow the current Gianforte administration sort of ongoing fight with the judiciary. I mean, this is a specific example of what is become a broader issue in this administration.

Holly Michels Yeah, we saw in the statement the health department put out, I think twice they tried to say that Moses' order wasn't very clear. And a big part of his order that he issued verbally in court was saying he felt and he pointed to places in his original written order from earlier this year blocking this law, you know, he made very clear that he would not allow any part of the law to be enacted while this plays out. And then we saw statements from Republican State Senator Greg Hertz, who's from Polson, and he is head of this Judicial Integrity Commission that's met several times during the interim now, actually formed during the legislative session to pursue Republican claims that the judiciary is biased and needs to be examined. So they issued a statement sort of criticizing Moses, saying this was judicial activism. We saw similar language in a statement from the State Department of Justice. So this is sort of continuing these claims from Republicans about judges being on the liberal side of things.

Sally Mauk Rob, Senator Steve Daines is co-sponsoring a bill with Senator Lindsey Graham that would create a federal ban on abortion. And abortion is going to be an issue influencing elections around the country this year. How do you think it may impact Montana's election, especially, for example, the two congressional races?

Rob Saldin Yes Sally, I think Dobbs is a big deal. And we're already seeing a lot of evidence from around the country, from the ballot measure in Kansas, two Democrats over performing in special elections, that suggests upending Roe is boosting Democrats, presumably by encouraging some people to turn out to vote who otherwise wouldn't. And by raising the prominence of abortion as an issue to the point that at least some voters are casting ballots for Democrats who otherwise would be supporting Republicans. And that all really shouldn't be surprising when people perceive that they've lost something, that they've had something taken away that actually carries more weight for them than when they get something. And a lot of voters, of course, understand Dobbs as taking away a longstanding right, you know, when the conversation on abortion is focused on late-term stuff, you know, that's favorable to Republicans. But Dobbs has really put all the focus on early-term stuff, and bans and some pretty extreme legislation in some of the states. Now we have this Lindsey Graham and Steve Daines bill, which in some ways is not all that out of step with where public opinion is — kind of the sweet spot. Just as public opinion is 15 to 20 weeks, the proposed bill is 15 weeks, but it is a federal ban. And so, again, it puts the focus on banning things. And just as a matter of electoral politics, I think that's pretty good turf for Democrats.

One other thing, maybe as we're talking about national stuff, Sally, it's just worth noting is that there is the abortion bit, there is the Trump factor, but all of the traditional measures of the electoral environment are all still very favorable for Republicans, right? You've got the midterm effect in which the president's party almost always loses seats. Biden's approval, while not quite as bad as it has been, still in pretty rough shape. Right track, wrong track polling is bad for Democrats. Concerns about the economy, especially inflation, those are real. So by historical standards, all that would suggest a great year for Republicans and in at least a somewhat competitive House district like the new Montana one, you know, that's good news for GOP nominee Zinke. And it'll be interesting to see if some of these other national factors can push back on that.


Sally Mauk Holly, Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale is clearly using the national issue of immigration to bolster his reelection campaign, and he's taken several trips to the southern border and been harshly critical of the current administration's policies. He must see that as an issue Montana voters will rally around.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think so. When you think about that, looking back to when Rosendale was first elected to the seat in 2020, that was a race that was also really nationalized and the southern border was a big part of that. It was such a strange year of COVID that you're really changing the landscape and really allowed for, I think, a lot of political watchers I talked to after the election, and Democrats, to point out nationalization as a big part of why Republicans, including Rosendale, swept all the statewide seats by such big margins that year. With Rosendale specifically, too, I think, nationalization, looking at his race against Jon Tester in 2018, he wasn't able to capitalize on that as much. I think Tester is just a harder candidate to do that with, and that's even in a year we had Trump coming to Montana multiple times. So it was a winning game plan for him in 2020. We're seeing it again now. Immigration is one of the things like Rob was talking about, with Trump still being very popular among his supporters, and Montana being a place where there's a lot of them. So Rosendale can talk about how he aligns with Trump. He can talk about building the wall. And I think it is one of those topics that, especially in a northern state like Montana, just has a lot of national points. We hear Rosendale talking about sanctuary cities. And I think if you've got Republican voters, they may be fired up right now seeing some of the things going on with. You've got Florida's governor flying migrants to Massachusetts or Texas' governor, busing people to the vice president's residence in D.C. Yeah, I think to be fair to Republicans, they have talked about connecting the southern border to local issues here, talking about Fentanyl all that reaches Montana from Mexico. So there is some local part to this issue. But for the most part, when we're hearing immigration in the southern border discussed it's a lot through this national lens.

Sally Mauk Well Rob, Rosendale also recently visited a Kalispell company called Hoplite Armor, which sells body armor to anyone who wants to buy it. And I guess, first of all, why would anyone who is not in law enforcement or the military need or want body armor and why is Rosendale highlighting this company, do you think?

Rob Saldin Well, yeah, I don't know why normal people would need body armor. I certainly don't feel the need for that. It's easy to look at this as kind of a cynical political move, a political calculation. I tend to think that to the extent that's what's going on, it's not a good one. His district is, of course, very Republican. But even so, on a variety of issues, you know, this perhaps among them, but also stuff like Ukraine and Russia, you know, he's well to the right of his constituency, I think. But I'm not sure that this is a political calculation so much as it is just a reflection of who Matt Rosendale is and what he thinks. As long as he's been on the Montana political scene, he's been pretty far out there on the right. So this isn't something that strikes me as new. He's been quite consistent, and he probably figures, not unreasonably, that given his district and given how polarized we are, he has the latitude to indulge a lot of his personal preferences when it comes to this stuff without paying that much of a price. Now, that said, one can always take things a little too far. Right? There does come a point at which even in a very red district, voters are going to say, you know, that's just a bit too much. And Rosendale is perhaps pushing those limits. And yet, you know, in this particular election cycle, his opponents do seem to be throwing him a lifeline because they've split their forces between a Democratic candidate and an anti-Rosendale independent. And I, for one, have never understood how you could split your forces and have any hope in in a district like that.

Sally Mauk Well Holly, Democrat Monica Tranel, who's running for the western congressional seat, has a new campaign ad featuring the former chair of the state Republican Party. Susan Good Geise. Here's that ad".

"I am the former chairman of the Montana Republican Party. There's no way that I could support Ryan Zinke. 18 investigations, many of them featured federal crimes. The land deal that would have benefited him directly. Lying to investigators. And he resigned in disgrace. I'm supporting Monica Tranel. I've seen Monica go up against huge corporations and win. She'll stand up to anyone who threatens Montana."

"I'm Monica Tranel and I approve this message."

Sally Mauk Holly, on the face of it, this ad seems aimed at Republicans who might switch and vote for the Democrat Tranel. But does Susan Good Geise still have much sway over a state party that has changed so much since she was the head of it?

Holly Michels You know, I think that's a good question. I think here around Lewis and Clark County she's still a pretty well-known name and face, but we're over in the eastern District, not the district Tranel's running in in the west. So I kind of wonder about that. You know, it does follow the lines of what we've seen of other prominent former officeholders who are Republicans who are backing either an independent candidate like Buchanan in the eastern House race or ones who are, you know, former Governor Mark Racicot raising concerns about Republicans. He's been pretty critical of Trump and those who seek to align with him. Back in 2020, we even had Bob Brown, who served as Republican secretary of state and ran for governor as a Republican, he endorsed the Democrat running for secretary of state. But that wasn't a race where the Democrat came out on top and lost by a pretty decent margin. So you've seen how effective that's been in the past. I think something interesting about Susan Good Geise is this isn't the first time she split from Republicans pretty prominently. Back in 2020, she briefly ran for U.S. Senate as a Libertarian, saying she had real concerns about the Republican Party. She ended up dropping out of that race to focus on the county's response to COVID. But as part of that bid, she made it really clear that she felt alienated by the Republican Party, that she didn't have a home there, and it had been that way since at least the 2016 election. You know, this ad, it also kind of hits on something we talked about last week and a different Tranel ad bringing up investigations into Zinke when he was secretary of interior. You know I really think it's an interesting ad and we've seen more former Republicans and some people who are still Republicans but uncomfortable with parts of the party right now support Democrats or independents or just raise these concerns. But you just don't know how much voters know who Susan Good Geise is or what her role might be. But it's a pretty interesting ad, I think.

Sally Mauk Well, there are many more ads showing up now as the election gets closer and we'll be talking about a lot of those as we go on. Rob and Holly, we're out of time this week. Thank you. And I'll talk to you soon.

Holly Michels Thanks.

Rob Saldin Thanks, Sally.

You've been listening to Campaign Beat, a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio. Campaign Beat features Rob Saldin of the University of Montana's Mansfield Center and Political Science Department. Lee Newspaper State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and hosted by Sally Mauk. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.

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'.