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Candidates are leaning on familiar themes and ads are getting nasty

Accusations fly in the latest congressional debates, and TV ads get nastier, too. Here's what the candidates are saying this week.

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 Independent Democrat and Republican candidates for the eastern district congressional seat have had two debates in the last week. And in those debates, the two underdogs, Gary Buchanan and Penny Ronning, have not, surprisingly, gone after the Republican front runner, Matt Rosendale. And here's one of the debate exchanges.

Gary Buchanan: "I think it's clear, Matt, that you haven't really passed anything of substance. I was just in Havre two weeks ago. And you're voting against $100 million for the Milk River Irrigation Project. And I didn't even know about it, but I was told that by dozens of Havre residents. So you got to put your money where your mouth is and you got to help Montanans.

Penny Ronning: "Thank you. Matt, you just voted yesterday against the help for veterans who are in need of food security. You voted against almost every single thing that comes to do with veterans, but you take credit for the legislation that gets passed by Senator Tester and the Democrats."

Matt Rosendale: "Sure, sure. I appreciate it. I do put my money where my mouth is, but I am a very good steward of the taxpayers' dollars. And when we start looking at legislation that has the Green New Deal involved in it, it has the gender sensitivity training in it when we see that it provides for additional expansions of government. We had $5 trillion worth of new spending that was piled up on the back of taxpayers across this nation last year. And that is not why I was sent to Washington, D.C."

Sally Mauk In this exchange, Holly, the challengers are trying to assert that Rosendale has little to brag about his time in Congress other than voting no.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think what we're seeing here, you know, we've talked about this before, it's a Republican-heavy district and Ronning and Buchanan both would need some Republicans to vote for them if they have any chance of winning here. So they need to chip away support for Rosendale as much as possible. It's fair to say, he's a freshman representative from Montana, so he isn't really poised to get a lot of legislation passed anyway. But what we heard here from his two challengers is about how often he's voted no during his first term in Congress.

And there's been times where he's been in line with other House Republicans in voting no against big proposals like, you know, Biden's Build Back Better or the American Rescue Plan Act. But what we heard in this exchange is there's times where Rosendale has really gone farther to the right than the rest of his party. You know, earlier this year, he was one of just three representatives who voted against the House's first resolution in support of Ukraine. He also was one of just 21 House Republicans who voted against a bill to give the Congressional Gold Medal to Capitol Police officers who responded to January 6th.

So, you know, Ronning and Buchanan, I think what they're doing here is hoping that by highlighting these votes, they can convince people in the district that Rosendale is not really aligned with them so much as farther to the right.

And we've heard Rosendale defend against these attacks. He's saying that he doesn't like spending that's wrapped up in these bills. Social issues, he says, are piled in and that voters wouldn't want him supporting those provisions. But how Congress works is for something like that Milk River funding that we heard Buchanan talk about — Montana's delegation has worked on that for decades. For something like that to pass, it needs to get tucked into a bigger bill like infrastructure that Rosendale says he has these larger objections to. He also, in that forum, said that the money coming to Montana in this legislation, he called it crumbs on the table, but clearly Buchanan and Ronning are hoping people in the district see it as a lot more than just crumbs.

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Sally Mauk Speaking of Ukraine, Rob, in the second debate this week, the candidates were asked what the U.S. should do about the war there. After saying the war makes us all feel bad, Congressman Rosendale and Penny Ronning said this.

Rosendale: "Right now we have 105,000 people that died in our own country last year from drug overdoses. The vast majority was from fentanyl, and that all came from Mexico. And for $8 billion, we could secure our own border. And I think that's what we need to do."

Ronning: "Matt, you absolutely need a history lesson. "Feel bad" about what's happened in Ukraine? We all feel bad? Children have been tortured. Entire cities have been devastated. Men and women have had their hands tied behind their back and they have been tortured and slaughtered. 400 graves were recently found. We all feel bad? No, that's not what we feel. We feel horrified. We feel mortified. And we feel like we have not been represented. You played blame and never gave an answer to the question."

Sally Mauk Rob, both Ronning and Buchanan are more supportive of U.S. aid to Ukraine than Mr. Rosendale is.

Rob Saldin Yeah, for sure, Sally. You know, the one thing you can say about Rosendale is that he has been consistent. Holly, you just ticked through some of Rosendale's liabilities and this is certainly one of them. He's on the wrong side of public opinion on this, I think that's pretty clear. But that said, Rosendale does articulate a view that's very much in keeping with the particular strain of American political thought that can be traced all the way back to the founding that's always been skeptical of international engagements and made the case that, you know, hey, we've got plenty of problems here at home to deal with let's focus on those before we go running around being the world's policeman. But Ronning here, very nicely and powerfully captures the principal objection to that, that there is something immoral about standing back and just letting this stuff happen, and, you know, we're turning our back on an evil that we have at least some power to temper. But certainly this is a huge point where we see a difference between the candidates.

The western district House candidates met for a forum in Butte on September 29. This was the second time Republican Ryan Zinke, Democrat Monica Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb have met on stage.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, the gloves are definitely off in the western congressional race, and that's evidenced by this exchange in a recent debate between Democrat Monica Tranel and Republican Ryan Zinke.

Monica Tranel: "And I know what it means when you have to budget your groceries, when you have to pay for gas. And every time you put gas in your tank, you think about how much of that money is going into Ryan's and his pocket. He took $460,000 from ConocoPhillips last year alone. Montana is hurting right now and we can't afford to have purchased politicians like Ryan Zinke representing us. We need a Montanan representing us, and that's me."

Ryan Zinke: "You know, Monica, the Snake commercial, for instance, is interesting because that snake's not native to Montana. But then again either are you. I was born in Montana. I live in Montana. Matter of fact, I live in the same house our family's been living for four generations. So don't tell me I'm not from Montana."

Sally Mauk And Rob, Tranel labels Zinke, a "purchased politician."

Rob Saldin You know, you're right, the gloves are off. This debate It was just the two of them, so the dynamic was a little bit different. It absolutely was, in keeping with our previous debates and the campaign as a whole, quite aggressive. But overall, I thought they were both pretty sharp and I think they're probably both happy with how that went.

Now, the general rule of thumb is that if you're the challenger and you can stand toe to toe with the incumbent and look credible and like a plausible alternative, that's a win. Now, of course, in this case, Zinke isn't technically the incumbent, but as a as a practical matter, he sort of is. He used to hold the seat and has all the advantages that incumbents usually do. But, you know, I think Tranel definitely held her own, maybe a little better than that on that particular exchange.

It strikes me that Zinke has increasingly, I get the sense, been coming off as a bit defensive, sometimes overplays his hand a little bit. To my eye there is a little bit of that in that particular exchange. It does seem as though these critiques have gotten under his skin. Of course, Democrats have often accused Republicans like Gianforte and Rosendale of the whole carpetbagger thing. So this, you know, 'who's the real Montanan' theme is something that we've seen a lot over the years.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, the TV ads in this race are also getting nastier. And here's a new one from the Zinke campaign.

Zinke: "I'm Ryan Zinke, and I approve this message. "

Narrator: "Robert Riggs was convicted of repeatedly, viciously raping three little girls in Montana. Yet Riggs was able to find one private attorney willing to argue his appeal for a new trial. She argued to let him out of prison to roam our neighborhood streets. The attorney: Monica Tranel. Thank God she failed. Releasing dangerous predators. Tranel is too extreme for Montana."

Sally Mauk Holly. This ad tries to paint Tranel as someone who's okay with children being raped.

Holly Michels Yeah, this ad, it's a lot more than just snakes in this. It's getting really sharp and really pointed the closer we get to election day. This is clearly something that Zinke's campaign thinks is going to help them, like you said, in efforts to paint Tranel as too extreme. We hear that word in the ad and we've heard it from Zinke through this race. You know, tapping into this Republican message about extremist Democrats. In this ad, we hear Zinke saying that defending child sex offenders just isn't something we do in Montana. So, this is a lot more than those snake ads. It's pretty sharp. It's come up in the forums twice now and I think we're going to continue to hear Zinke bring this up until Election Day.

Rob Saldin The thing that strikes me about this one is that it comes out of the Republican greatest hits bag. It's a throwback to the classic Willie Horton ad back in the 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush's hatchet man, Lee Atwater, cut an ad that, just like this Zinke spot, highlighted a particular case and a particular individual and used that to suggest that Bush's opponent, Michael Dukakis, was soft on crime. Well, that original Willie Horton ad was especially controversial because there was a whole racial component to it. Zinke's remake here doesn't have that element, but it's otherwise true to the original. And there's a reason why Republicans routinely drag out this old warhorse, the whole soft on crime line: It's been really effective for them over the years. That's why we're seeing, you know, not just Zinke, but a wave of GOP candidates across the country hammering away on the crime issue.

Sally Mauk Tranel has responded, Holly, with this new ad.

Tranel: "Ryan Zinke lied to criminal investigators to cover up his corruption. Now he's lying about me. I'm endorsed by prosecutors, police officers and judges across Montana because I've spent my career protecting Montanans. I'm also the mother of three daughters. I never argued to let a convicted rapist go free. Ryan Zinke is a corrupt liar who was forced to quit in disgrace. Look it up for yourself."

Sally Mauk And in this ad, Holly, Tranel accuses Zinke of being a "corrupt liar."

Holly Michels Tranel firing back here, she's bringing up these investigations into Zinke again. We've heard about them over and over. It's her trying to turn the tables here, saying I'm not the one doing anything wrong, that's you. She's also saying there's not a set of circumstances in this situation where the man that she was representing would have been released.

What happened here is this was a man who was convicted of sexual abuse of children who later filed a petition, first on his own, to the state Supreme Court, saying he didn't have effective representation at the trial where he was convicted. He ended up hiring Tranel. And in the brief that Tranel wrote, asking for a new trial, they made these claims saying this man's attorney just really didn't do what he should have done, interviewing witnesses, preparing people to testify, all of that. The filing never made the claim that this man was innocent. It just said it was probable that if he had a better lawyer, he would have gotten a lesser sentence. And it did ask the state Supreme Court to give this man a new trial. You know, in those situations, even if — and then in this case, the Supreme Court rejected those claims, so that was the end of it — if they hadn't and if this man would have gotten a new trial, in those situations, generally people aren't released because they're still facing the same charges. They did the first go around. So they're in custody awaiting trial. But this ad, it's obviously something that's come up twice on the forums. It's going to be on TV. They're both really, really sharp.

I think another thing that's interesting and, you know, both campaigns are touting that in their most recent financial reports they brought in over $1,000,000 that Tranel has the capacity to do a response ad on this quick of a turnaround. So, you know, I don't think this is the worst of what we're going to see as we get closer to Election Day, but definitely see it a lot more on TV before November.

Sally Mauk Well, something to look forward to, I guess. Holly and Rob, we're out of time. Thank you so much.

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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