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Your voter info pamphlet has some bad info, and polls show Tranel catching up to Zinke

Polls and pundits suggest Montana's western district congressional race is tightening. New ads emphasize a mining ban and an "anti-business" bent. And, your voter information pamphlet has some bad information.

Sally Mauk Rob, we talked a little bit last week about how some national political analysts had changed their assessment of Montana's western district congressional race from "likely Republican" to "leans Republican." And now this week, two more respected pundits, the Cook Political Reportand Larry Sabato, are also giving the Democrat Monica Tranel at least a slight chance of scoring an upset over Republican Ryan Zinke. And Sabato even compared the race to the Democrat Mary Peltola as upset win over Sarah Palin in Alaska. That that was an interesting comparison.

Rob Saldin Yeah, right, Sally. Both Larry and Cook Political Report have moved it a notch toward Tranel adjusting the race, as the two did last week, from "likely Republican" to just "leans Republican," which is one notch away from a pure toss up. And yeah, that comparison to the Alaska situation was interesting on both the comparison between the Democratic candidates and the comparison between the Republican candidates.

You know, you all talked about this a little last week. The one thing that I think all of these different rating systems are picking up is, as you touched on, the fundraising; but also these two new polls that are out there now, they're both linked to the Tranel campaign. So I don't necessarily put as much stock in them as if they were independent polls. And of course, Sabato and Cook recognize this, too. But both of those polls do show it within the margin of error, which means it's statistically tied. That's the data they have to go on. It's the only polling out there. But regardless, this has to be a jolt of energy for Democrats and a little nerve wracking for Republicans.

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You know, one other thing I think worth noting here, Sally, is that these recent positive signs for Tranel, from the fundraising to the polling to the ratings changes, they're taking place in a national context that over the course of the last couple of weeks appears to be shifting in favor of Republicans. We see this in the polling data for the high profile Senate races, in generic ballot polling, in analyzes of early voting numbers, in the issues that voters are saying they care about and so forth. Now, none of this is dispositive, and it's still easy enough to game out positive scenarios for Democrats. But for those of us who track these things closely, there does appear to be a national shift toward the GOP from where we were in, say, late August, early September. And to the extent that's real, it would mean that any momentum Tranel is picking up is coming despite some national headwinds. But of course, you know, we, we follow individual campaigns because it's not all about the fundamentals and the national trends. Campaigns matter and candidates matter.

Sally Mauk Holly, Tranel's perceived gains in this race are the reason we're seeing a lot more pro-Zinke ads like this one on the air.

[Zinke ad speaker 1]: "When the Lodgepole Fire hit us, Ryan Zinke acted quickly, cut red tape and helped us get through. He had our back."

[Zinke ad speaker 2]: "When foreign companies wanted to mine Paradise Valley, Congressman Zinke said 'no way.' Then as secretary, he shut them down. He had our back."

Speaker 6 [Zinke ad Gov. Gianforte]: "Elections matter. Don't believe the false attacks. Ryan puts Montana first and we need him in Congress again."

Sally Mauk Well, it's interesting, Holly, that this ad points out Zinke's opposition to a mine in the Paradise Valley and features Governor Gianforte.

Holly Michels Yeah, this ad is, I think, a pretty direct response to all the attacks that Zinke's Democratic opponent, Monica Tranel, has made against him about these investigations that took place when he was secretary of Interior. And I think, you know, it's doing a lot of work through what you just raised, the things it highlights to try to remind people that there were some positives that came out of his time when he was heading up interior. The first person we hear from is a rancher, you hear him talking about the Lodgepole Complex fire from 2017. Zinke made a decision at Interior to let ranchers graze on the Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge. And that was a move that really helped ranchers through this really bad fire. That was a really hard financial time.

The second person in this ad references a decision Zinke made at Interior. He approved a two decade long ban on any new mining claims in the Paradise Valley, which is fair to say one of the more treasured places in the state for natural beauty and recreation. And it's actually a ban that was put in place under the Obama administration and continued by Zinke, and I think unless you are a mining company operating down in the valley, this was a pretty widely popular and actually bipartisan move. When it happened it had bipartisan support.

And then, like you said, we end with Republican Governor Greg Gianforte. He's again making references to what he's calling false attacks against Zinke. I think we can assume that's the Tranel ads he's talking about. We haven't really seen any Republican surrogates come to Montana for Zinke in this race. Like you and Rob were talking about, there's a lot of other high-profile Republican close races around the country that's drawing those surrogates, so they're not coming to Montana. I think Gianforte is kind of filling that role here. And there's not really a lot of polling on Gianforte's popularity as governor, but he did just two years ago win election to that office by basically a landslide. So I think Zinke is hoping some of that popularity rubs off on him.

Sally Mauk Rob, the state Supreme Court race between James Brown and Ingrid Gustafson has now attracted more campaign money than any other judicial race in Montana history. And much of that money is being spent on TV ads like this one from a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee's Judicial Fairness Initiative.

[Ad narrator] "Ingrid Gustafson:"A Bad Choice for Supreme Court. Gustafson is "F" -rated by the Montana Chamber of Commerce. F-rate. The lowest score given to any justice on the Supreme Court. Liberal Ingrid Gustafson. Bad for business, bad for Montana jobs."

Sally Mauk I'm not sure, Rob, what it means that a Supreme Court justice is, quote, bad for business.

Rob Saldin Right? I mean, it's obviously not their role to consider that in the way that a politician would, and it would be inappropriate for them to approach their work with that kind of a goal in mind. You know, that said, Sally, part of what's going on in this ad and in this campaign more broadly is a reflection of the manner in which we select justices. When you've got a system in which judges are directly elected by the people, it's going to invite these kinds of attacks. You know, on the one hand, we're asking citizens to vote directly on who sits on the Supreme Court. And yet we also want voters to disregard the kinds of considerations that they typically rely on to make their voting decisions, namely public policy issues and partisanship. So I don't know that there's a perfect system for selecting Supreme Court justices. Appointment systems have their own pluses and minuses, but to my mind, at least, this this campaign has revealed some of the inherent tensions and contradictions involved in having voters pick justices in direct elections.

You know, one other thing that I got to mention, Sally, that stood out to me on that just the substance of this ad is that it looks like the Chamber is a very tough grader. By the tone and language of the spot, you'd think that Gustafson was some kind of crazed outlier on the Court, that she's somehow uniquely hostile to Montana business. But one of the visuals on this ad, and it's only on screen momentarily, but it shows the grades that the other justices received. Well, four of the seven justices got F's. And the other three, they didn't exactly receive glowing evaluations either. There was a D plus, a C plus and a B. So just taking the ad on its own terms, you know, I guess it's true that Gustafson got the lowest score, but she was in good company with over half of the court earning the same grade. And I'd say a full six of the seven justices getting pretty lackluster scores. So that broader context seems to undercut the basic message of the ad a bit.

Sally Mauk Rob, the politics of this race seem to me to be somewhat a reflection of what has been going on for some months now, and that is not an attack on the judiciary, but certainly a lot of questioning of the judiciary's role in government. And, you know, that came up in the legislative session. And it's coming up now on this election, do you think?

Rob Saldin Well, I think that's definitely a dynamic that's at work, Sally. And what's motivating a lot of it, I think, is that Republicans are just very frustrated with the court. As they look at it, the GOP totally dominates the Legislature, overwhelming majorities, and now with Gianforte, they finally got a Republican governor. And yet still they aren't able to enact key elements of their agenda because the court strikes them down as unconstitutional. So some Republicans look at this and say, well, we either need to get different justices on the court and hope that they'll make different decisions or we've got to change the Constitution either by amending the parts that we don't like or scrapping it entirely, and calling a new constitutional convention to write a new one. Of course, there's nothing to stop them from pursuing both of these tracks at the same time, and I think that's what we see them doing. And so that's the broader context into which this election between Gustafson and Brown and the whole partisan dynamic that has emerged is playing out.

Sally Mauk Holly, voters this week got a voter information pamphlet in the mail from the Secretary of State's office, and it has some wrong information about both current election law and the LR-131 referendum.

Holly Michels Yeah, so what happened this election is we had a decision from a Billings judge about a month ago that said laws passed last year by Republican legislators that change how voting registration deadlines work and what kind of IDs people can use to vote in person were unconstitutional. So his ruling meant those laws would not be in place for the November 8th election. We saw in a press release from the Secretary of State, Kristi Jacobson, who puts together this voter information pamphlet that it was in production before the judge's order. So they were saying there wasn't a way to make changes to it before it was put in the mail. The secretary asked news outlets to report about these changes, but she's not clarified if there would be an update of that pamphlet printed out and delivered to voters.

The laws that Moses found unconstitutional were ones that would have changed the voter registration deadline and also would have changed the types of IDs that people can vote with. So going into this Election Day, people can register up until 8 p.m. on Election Day, which is November 8th, to vote. And they can also vote with things like a photo student I.D.. There's a little more than 509,000 of those documents mailed to people around the state. And it is a tool people use to kind of navigate how to vote and also to read about ballot initiatives that they're going to see when they do vote.

Sally Mauk And that referendum objections have to do with the wording to the referendum, correct?

A controversial referendum on the November ballot with roots in the pro-life movement could have implications that extend beyond abortion rights.

Holly Michels Yeah. So this is for Legislative Referendum 131. And there was a letter sent by a lawyers representing two medical associations saying that language in that document from proponents is misleading. This is a little more of a gray area than the election rules and laws that we're under. And the secretary hasn't responded to this letter yet. And this is the referendum that would require doctors to take medically appropriate actions to try to sustain the life of an infant, either following an attempted abortion or spontaneous pre-term labor. What this letter is claiming is that proponents wrote a misleading statement that implies that the referendum would not apply in the case of a natural birth or miscarriage. And just to clarify, that referendum does apply to both the situation of an abortion or a miscarriage or natural birth. The proponents are disputing this. They're saying the language is clear. Though they do admit that they focus more on situations of abortion because that's more of their focus when it comes to this referendum. I doubt we're going to hear much more about this, just given how close we are to the election, and kind of falls into a gray area of what the secretary's duties are to respond here. This definitely is a confusing ballot measure. So I think it's, you know, something people can find good news coverage on to explain the issue if they're confused by the language there.

Sally Mauk Right. Well, I would encourage people to research these issues. And if there is confusion, to try to clarify it before you cast your ballot, of course. Holly, Rob, we're out of time. Thanks so much.

Campaign Beat is hosted by MTPR's 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'.
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