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Abortion proposal clears a hurdle; Ranchers, rhinestone cowboys and ... Beyonce

Abortion supporters face a tight deadline to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot. Senate hopeful Tim Sheehy talks up his ranching credentials, but an ad from his opponents calls him a rhinestone cowboy. Gov. Gianforte has a lot more money in the bank than challenger Ryan Busse — who has a new ad featuring Beyonce's latest hit.

Campaign Beat is MTPR's weekly political analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune in on-air Saturdays at 9:45 a.m. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Sally Mauk: Holly, the state Supreme Court has ruled against Attorney General Austin Knudsen's effort to keep a proposed constitutional amendment that would protect abortion, off the November ballot. That doesn't mean voters for sure will see the amendment on the ballot.

Holly Michels No, this still has a ways to go before we could get to that point. So, this is a measure that would go further than existing court precedent that already allows for access to pre viability abortions in Montana. What it would do is amend the state constitution to add a new section saying a person has the right to make and carry out decisions about their pregnancy, and the government could only limit that ability in some very specific ways.

You know, when Knudsen declared this measure legally insufficient, he said it was because it 'log rolled', or combined several distinct issues into one measure, which you can't do. But the Supreme Court disagreed with that in a 6 to 1 ruling and it ordered Knudsen within five days, to either forward the ballot language as it is or draft his own language to send to the Secretary of State, so that supporters of the measure can move forward to start up this signature gathering process to qualify the measure for the ballot.

But initiative backers — and that's a group called Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights — are worried that Knudsen will write his own language that they fear will misconstrue the measure and force them to go back to court to challenge it again. That's because Knudsen, a Republican, is opposed to abortion access, and he's currently in the process of asking the state Supreme Court to reverse existing precedent that allows for access to abortions in Montana now.

And pretty critical to everything that's going on here is a really tight timeline that supporters are under to get enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. The Montana Free Press reported that Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, had already asked the court, before their order, to issue their decision rapidly, saying any further delay would make it impossible for them to gather the roughly 60,000 signatures they need from at least 40 House districts around the state to get the measure qualified. So that's a pretty massive and expensive process that could be pretty hard to pull off before the June deadline, especially if this group ends up back in court. Knudsen has until March 25th to take action, so that's when we'll know what the next steps are. But I think initiative supporters are expecting further delays and sort of preparing for that reality.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Democrats want this abortion amendment on the ballot for a couple of reasons. They support legal abortion, and they believe it's an issue that could help motivate their voters.

Rob Saldin: Right. Exactly, Sally. You know, we've seen since Dobbs overturned Roe v Wade that Republicans have been hurt when abortion is front and center. And it was, after all, Trump's three nominees to the Supreme Court that proved decisive in that case. And some of the measures that some states have passed and others have tried to pass since Dobbs opened that door have been quite unpopular. So, right. Montana Democrats and Democrats across the country would be delighted to have abortion top of mind in voters' heads this fall. This is an issue that, for a long time, Sally was more galvanizing for Republicans in terms of generating turnout. But that's flipped now. The energy is all on the Democrats' side at this point. And so, you know, the politics of it work well for Democrats right now. And, of course, the policy preference is clear, too. So, when those two things align, you've got a winner. Now, I do still think it's a little bit of an open question how much this matters in a presidential year. We haven't seen this tested in other states. When you've got Trump and Biden at the top of the ticket. But Democrats feel like, to the extent voters are thinking about abortion, that in this environment, post Dobbs, is something that helps them.

Sally Mauk: In the meantime, Rob, Congressman Matt Rosendale sent a letter to the VA, objecting to that agency's intention to provide in-vitro fertilization to unmarried veterans and same sex married couples. And this IVF controversy is another extension of the abortion debate over when life begins.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, that's right, Sally. It's a great example of how Republicans have overreached on some of this stuff and continue to overreach. Whatever muddled views Americans may have about abortion, going after IVF is just a bridge too far for most voters.

You know, you look at the public opinion polling on abortion and you do see continued uneasiness about abortion. People don't like big restrictions on abortion, but they're also very uneasy with wide open abortion on demand till the very end of pregnancy — those things are rare, of course — but they're uncomfortable with that as well. Well, IVF is one of those things that for most Americans, you know, this is something that folks who are struggling to get pregnant and want to get pregnant, want to start a family, you know, this is something that is a potential savior for those folks. And so going after something like that, regardless of the technical reasons that Rosendale has for opposing it, you know, that's just going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Now, of course, Rosendale is not running for anything this year, but plenty of his fellow Republicans are.

Sally Mauk: Holly, Republican Senate candidate Tim Sheehy has a new ad featuring him driving down the road in a pickup truck. And here's part of that ad.

Tim Sheehy narration: From Dillon to Culbertson, Montanans have been totally clear with me. We need to return American strength to Washington, D.C. I've been serving our country since I was 18 years old. I created a successful business from scratch, created hundreds of jobs. I don't need the money from lobbyists. I can do the right thing in office because it's the right thing for America.

Sally Mauk: And Holly, the ad goes on to repeat Sheehy's campaign themes of balancing the budget and securing the border.

Holly Michels: Yeah Sally, this ad is really hitting, I think, Sheehy's bread and butter pretty hard. He's emphasizing his identity as an outsider in this race. Something that stuck out to me is him saying he's not a career politician who's tight with lobbyists. It also also feels like it's addressing, though not super directly, Sheehy's wealth a little bit, saying he's a founder of a successful business and doesn't need lobbyist money. But I think that's also mainly a dig at (Democratic U.S. Senator Jon) Tester.

Back in 2006, when Tester was first elected by defeating Conrad Burns, Tester really hammered Burns on his ties to lobbyists. But as the Associated Press reported last year, Tester received about $160,000 in campaign contributions from employees and committees tied to the defense industry after he became chair of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. So those arguments are a little harder for Tester to make now. His office has said the money hasn't swayed any of his decisions, but it does give Sheehy this opening that he's taking in the ad.

Like you pointed out, this ad goes really hard on Sheehy's military record. He's played that up a lot so far in this campaign. You hear him saying he's fought for this country in a different way than Tester has. Montana has a higher percentage of veterans than a lot of other states, and historically Tester's done really well with them when he points to his record in Congress, where he's served as chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. But this ad is another example of what we've seen Sheehy do — making an argument to those veterans that he'd be a better choice for them.

Another thing that stood out to me — we also see this appearance from the ranch truck from Sheehy's Little Belt Cattle Company in this ad. That ranch was the subject of a Vanity Fair story that was critical of how much, or how little, Sheehy's involved in the day-to-day operations of that ranch. That kind of echoes back to attacks we heard against Matt Rosendale in his 2018 race against Tester; the logistics of the ranch that Rosendale owns outside Glendive. And finally, like you said, we've got references to the southern border. That's kind of starting to feel like a requirement for any ad this election cycle. You know, Sheehy recently took a trip down to that border and I think we're going to see him play that up a whole lot more as this race goes on.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Montana Democrats have countered with this ad labeling Sheehy a 'Rhinestone Cowboy'.

Announcer: Tim Sheehy, another out of state tech millionaire, comes to buy up land in Montana, buys a fancy hat, even does a glossy magazine photo shoot or two. His ranch uses an out-of-state influencer who celebrates their #ranchlife, whatever that means.

Sally Mauk: And the ad, Rob goes on to mention Sheehy's purchase of mansions on Flathead Lake and at Big Sky, and they're hammering the idea he's just another rich dude trying to buy a Senate seat.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, exactly, Sally. You know, this kind of carpetbagger attack; 'the rich are out to get you' kind of a message has been a feature of Democratic ads for a long time, and we've seen plenty of this kind of thing here in Montana, perhaps most notably against Gianforte and Rosendale, and even dating back to Denny Rehberg and the attack on him as a 'mansion rancher'. This does strike me as a pretty clever entry in that larger genre, right? Dubbing him a Rhinestone Cowboy.

I do wonder, though, Sally, if these kinds of class warfare appeals pack as much punch as they used to? You know, one of the most important shifts in American politics recently has been the changing composition of the two parties’ bases. And the Democrats are in the process of shifting from a party that was dominated by the working class for a long time. In many ways, they still fashion themselves as the party of the working class, and you kind of see that appeal undergirding this ad. But increasingly the party is dominated by college educated professionals. And for that kind of an audience, I'm not sure that this kind of appeal is going to land with quite as much impact.

Sally Mauk: Holly, the candidates in the governor's race have released their first quarter fundraising numbers, and no surprise, Governor Greg Gianforte has a big edge, moneywise, over Democrat Ryan Busse.

Holly Michels: He does, Sally. He brought in a bit more than $1.2 million dollars over the first quarter of this year, which is a pretty good haul. Unlike previous races for Gianforte, where he's heavily self-financed, nearly all of that is from individual donors. Gianforte hasn't had to spend too much of that either. So, he ended up the quarter with still leaving $1.1 million left in the bank.

And like you said, Busse, the Democratic challenger to Gianforte, had a pretty decent first quarter for a political newcomer. Those totals nowhere near Gianforte's. Busse brought in around $417,000, which his campaign points out is more than any previous non incumbent challenger over the first quarter of an election year, and even beats out what Gianforte raised in the first quarter of 2020, which was nearly $389,000 from contributors. Busse, as you'd expect from somebody needing to work to get his name out there against an incumbent, has also really outspent Gianforte over the whole campaign since he announced last year. He's raised about $870,000, though still not as much as Gianforte's first quarter total, but he spent about $543,000 of that already, whereas Gianforte spent less than $90,000.

In statements from the campaigns, Gianforte's campaign manager says their haul shows really strong support from what Gianforte has done in his term as governor so far. Busse's campaign manager says their numbers show they've got this movement building behind them. They're saying it captures Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Busse has an online ad out set to the tune of Beyoncé's huge hit 'Texas Hold'em'. And here's part of that ad: (Snippet of song).

Sally Mauk: And the ad, Rob, features video from the campaign trail. And the video is actually, I think, as engaging as the song.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, for sure. You really need to see it to get the full impression. It's not necessarily big on substance, Sally, but it certainly conveys an attitude and a vibe, and it does pick up, I think, on some of the real enthusiasm that is out there for Busse, just when you talk to people out on the street and such. Now, whether or not that enthusiasm extends beyond the core Democratic base or not, I think is, a very open question and we'll be getting some answers to that as we get further into the campaign.

Sally Mauk: We will for sure. Well, Holly and Rob, we're out of time. Thank you. I'll talk to you next week.

Campaign Beat is MTPR's weekly political analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune in on-air Saturdays at 9:45 a.m. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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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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