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What's motivating voters this year, and what surprises could Election Day hold?

This election could come down to local versus national issues. Early voting numbers show a low turnout so far. Republicans hope Tuesday's results give them a supermajority in the Legislature, and what surprises could Election Day have in store?

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 Rob, in the western district congressional race, more than one ad from Ryan Zinke's campaign ties his opponent Monica Tranel to President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And this effort to nationalize the race is not a new tactic, is it?

Rob Saldin No, it's straight out of the playbook, Sally. I mean, this is clearly an effort to nationalize the election, and there's a reason for that. If this thing comes down to a referendum on Biden and Pelosi, if that's what voters are thinking about when they decide who to vote for in that first district, well, I think he's going to win that. So he's trying to bring those national D.C. considerations front and center. That's what he wants this race to be about.

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Sally Mauk Well, the Tranel campaign has kept her ads more Montana focused. But Democrats nationally, Rob, including President Biden, are trying to make this midterm election about saving democracy, no less, especially in the wake of the attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband and the attempted attack on her. Do you see that impacting Montana voters at all?

Rob Saldin Well, Sally, first, I think you're right. Tranel, you know, we've talked about this before; She wants voters to be thinking about Montana issues when they cast ballots. About which of these two individuals they like more and trust more. You know, that is the recipe for a Democrat in Montana. On the democracy frame, I think a lot of us who have concerns about the state of American democracy would love that to kind of be something that registers with a lot of voters. And there is plenty of polling to suggest that, at least in some abstract sense, Americans are in fact concerned about democracy.

However, Sally, when those concerns around democracy are put next to concerns over the so-called kitchen table issues, you know, the economy and inflation, It's not at all clear that some of those other issues — and, you know, crime would be another one the Republicans are talking about a lot — it's not clear that democracy is going to carry the day. So, the people who are most concerned about the democracy stuff, that tends to be a little bit more of an elite crowd than the rank-and-file concern. So I'm not sure that that's going to move the needle much for Democrats, especially here in Montana. And so I think you do see Tranel focusing less on that and more, again, on these Montana issues and trying to draw a distinction between her and her opponent, Zinke, and make it a choice between those two individuals.

Sally Mauk Well Holly, last week we talked about how high or low voter turnout might impact the races. And we have some early numbers on absentee voting and they're not very impressive.

Holly Michels They're not Sally. You know, as of Thursday night, we were at just about 34% turnout if you're looking at absentee ballots returned as a percentage of registered voters. That's not very high for this point in the race and it's a midterm year, so it's probably safe to say turnout's going to land on the lower side of things.

There's also some specific issues we're seeing with turnout and voting pop up around the state. The Bozeman Chronicle recently reported that staffing problems with the postal service there have slowed down mail delivery. And that's meant Gallatin County, which has the second most registered voters in the state, is lagging pretty far behind other large counties in terms of how many absentee ballots have been returned by Halloween. There, they had only 26% of absentee ballots returned there, and that's compared with 38% in Missoula. And Missoula is even tracking a little slower this election than previous, and 41% in Yellowstone County. We saw Montana's U.S. senators prod the postal service about delays, and things have improved a little bit since then. Gallatin County turnout's about 29% now, but it's still pretty down from Missoula. which is ahead of there, and Yellowstone County's at 40%. So it's definitely not as great as we've seen.

With a week left until Election Day, 28% of registered voters in Montana have already cast mail-in ballots, representing less than half of the ballots that were sent to voters last month.

Turnout, for sure is tracking lower than 2020. That was a presidential election year. That always sees higher turnout and it was pretty dramatically changed by COVID and a lot of people voting by mail, it was 81% in that race, which was the highest we've seen since 1972. You know, the last midterm we had was 2018. We had 72% turnout there. But that's also not a great comparison to this year. It was that year had the most expensive Senate campaign in state history. So this year we do have that second House district, pretty hotly contested state Supreme Court race, but it still looks like turnout isn't going to blow any records out of the water.

The other thing I'm hearing from campaigns as we get weather forecasts for Election Day is that might actually sort of damper turnout, too. It's supposed to be really cold in parts of the state. Western races, the one I'm focusing on more, it's going to be really cold, snowy here. So that's just one more obstacle to casting a ballot.

Sally Mauk We should mention that the postal service is saying if you have not mailed in your absentee ballot yet, that you should not put it in the mail at this late date, but turn it into your election office or drop off.

Holly Michels Yep, take it in. Polls close at 8 p.m. November 8th. You can also register to vote up until that time. And the secretary of state's website, you can go to that. There's a link to get information about your local elections office, how to contact them. You can also check the status of an absentee ballot that you've sent back to see if it's been accepted. So a lot of good information you can find there.

Sally Mauk Right.

Rob, millions of dollars have been spent by Super PACs and the campaigns in the western district congressional race. But in the eastern district, not so much. What does that tell us?

Rob Saldin Well, it tells us how competitive these two races are. The western district is at least somewhat competitive under the right conditions. A Democrat could absolutely win that seat. But that eastern district is is just tough. It was always going to be tough for Democrats. And I think people want to throw their money towards campaigns where they have a chance of influencing the outcome. You know, it's just hard to imagine the array of forces that would have to line up, right, for Rosendale to lose in the east. And there have been some things, and we've talked about those over the course of the, of the show, but Republicans have the wind at their backs this year, and that's before you even get to the divided opposition. So I think it's just a reflection that people don't see that one as competitive. And on Rosendale's part, I would say that he's run a campaign that's been pretty light on the ground. That might be partially at least a reflection of him wanting to keep some of his powder dry. There is, after all, a Senate seat up in two years, and there's a lot of chatter that Rosendale wants another shot at Tester.

Sally Mauk Well, I'm so glad someone got in 'keeping your powder dry' in this conversation.

Holly, Republicans are hoping to bolster their majorities in the Legislature to a supermajority after this election. And they only need to pick up two seats to get there. That could change the dynamics of the upcoming session if they're successful.

Holly Michels It would Sally. So, the power that a supermajority has is, what it means, Republicans could pass bills that need that two thirds vote in each chamber without any buy-in from Democrats. That's things like legislative referendums; Those still do go to voters for a final yes or no, but to get on the ballot, Republicans can do that just with their own party. They can also overturn any veto by the governor without any input from Democrats.

Montana Republicans are two seats away from holding supermajorities in both chambers of the state Legislature. That could have big implications for the 2023 legislative session.

We've seen division before within the Republican Party, so there's always that to contend with. And you can't always assume they'll just vote as a block. But this still would be something. We haven't seen this type of majority in this state in about 100 years, Montana Public Radio recently reported. It's also been a pretty major role in the messaging Democrats have done in legislative races this election. It really focused on what Republicans having a supermajority would mean, especially when it comes to the right to privacy in the state's Constitution. That's where the state Supreme Court has said that upholds the right to access a pre-viability abortion in Montana. And some Republicans have indicated that seeking a change to that Constitution — which, again, voters would decide in the end, but Republicans could put it before them — that's how they see a path to further limit access to abortion in the state.

Even with that, Democrats did leave a lot of legislative seats unchallenged this cycle. They say that allows them to really focus their efforts on seats they think are competitive, either ones they think they can flip or ones they know that they'll have to fight to retain. So I think supermajority might not be something that's resonated super intensely with voters who aren't really closely tuned in. But it has played a significant role this election.

Sally Mauk And certainly would, as we say, change the nature of the upcoming session.

Lastly, Rob and Holly, what would most surprise you on Tuesday? I think for me it would be if there was a surprise, if something doesn't go as expected.

Rob, what do you think?

Rob Saldin Well Sally, I don't know if these count exactly as surprises, but I tell you what, I'm going to be fascinated to see what happens in the first district and what happens with the Supreme Court.

The political science, the data side of me would say in that first district, Zinke should win that. You know, he's also the quasi-incumbent, in addition to all these national forces that we've talked about over the last couple of weeks that are all kind of trending in the Republican direction. That really should be enough.

On the other hand, you know, you look back a couple of years ago, Trump carried the district fairly easily, but Steve Daines only carried the district by one over Steve Bullock. And that was in a big turnout year. A lot of that would have owed to people coming out to support Trump. And Tranel, I think, has run a very, very good campaign.

And, you know, here's one thing that did catch me a little by surprise over the course of this campaign, is that I think Zinke his problems on the right are legitimate. And we saw it crop up most obviously in that primary. Now, how much of that comes home for him on Tuesday? I think that's a big question. But, but that's going to be a fascinating one to watch. And it's going to tell us a lot about the state of the two parties in Montana, I think.

Here are answers to some of the top questions we've gotten from Montanans about the elections.

And then that Supreme Court one, again, kind of the track record that the history on these kinds of things, you'd think the incumbent, Ingrid Gustafson, should be fine, but the Republicans in the state, I think, have been very effective at placing that in a partisan context, Right? It's technically nonpartisan, but all the Republicans have lined up behind Brown. Is that enough to get him across the finish line to take out an incumbent? That's going to be a fascinating one to watch.

Sally Mauk Yeah. And just this week, Senator Daines and Governor Gianforte urged voters to vote for the "Republican," Mr. Brown. So there was clear partisanship in, supposedly, a nonpartisan race there.

Holly, what do you think? What would surprise you?

Holly Michels I think I would be surprised if we know the results. I'm covering that western house race on election night and I think I'll be surprised if we go to bed, or in my case, stay up hitting refresh on election results until six in the morning. If we know, I think like Rob said, you know, there's potential it could be close. There's also potential we saw in the primary where some counties had issues with counting. So we just didn't have enough information for the Associated Press to be able to call that race. So that, I think, I would be pretty surprised if we can be writing our final story for that next day.

I would also be surprised, like we talked about the start of the show, if turnout ends up high. And that is kind of surprising to me just that it is as low as it is. I was thinking new interest in the western House seat might bring people out to vote it. How the districts drawn, It's more competitive for Democrats than the eastern one. It's kind of, you know, the party's made pretty clear their best chance, they feel, in a long time to get a Democrat in the House. And I'm a little surprised there. I know it's a midterm and this probably was to be expected, but I was thinking it might be a little higher turnout.

And then I don't know if this is a surprise or not, but I'm really curious to see how Montanans vote on Legislative Referendum 131. That's the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. After the Dobbs decision, this isn't the cleanest measure, really, to gauge how Montanans view about access to abortion. It's more about infants that have been born, not changing access to abortion in the state at all. But it's been communicated as adjacent to that issue. And I'm really curious to see where Montanans land there

Sally Mauk Well, Holly and Rob, all the mysteries will be solved by the next time we talk. Thank you and I'll talk to you in a 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.

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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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