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Did Sheehy shoot himself in the foot? Can an anti-Trump Republican win in Montana?

Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Tim Sheehy faces scrutiny over a mysterious bullet wound and his company’s finances. New polling illustrates just how close and competitive that Senate race is. And at least one candidate in the crowded Eastern District House race turns his back on Trump.

Campaign Beat is MTPR's weekly political analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspaper's State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Sitting in for host Sally Mauk is Montana Public Radio News Director Corin Cates-Carney. Tune in on-air Saturdays at 9:45 a.m. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Corin Cates-Carney: Two stories getting attention on the Campaign Beat this week focused on the frontrunner in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, Tim Sheehy. The first came from the Washington Post and centers around the question of where a bullet lodged in his right forearm came from. The second from Montana Free Press Reporter Arren Kimbel-Sannit, that showed Sheehy's private aerial firefighting company is in debt and hemorrhaging cash. Holly, two stories here. How are parties, campaigns, outside groups trying to make hay of it?

Holly Michels: Yeah, Corin these stories are both getting a lot of attention. Like you said, that story from the Montana Free Press found Sheehy's company, which is Bridger Aerospace, an aerial firefighting company, lost about $77 million last year. Something it attributed to a not very active fire season. And this report that the Free Press found called the 10K, also shows the company's assets were about $45 million, which is dramatically lower than it was the year prior at $107 million.

The story also talked about how Bridger could face the possibility of being in violation of agreements related to a with Gallatin County when it expanded a hangar there and bought more airplanes, and that could come with some ramifications. You know, in response to the Free Press, they posed some questions to Sheehy and his campaign. The campaign pointed those questions toward Bridger Aerospace. The company issued a statement saying it's proud of what it's accomplished and plans to do in the future.

The Free Press also posed some questions to Sheehy following comments he made at a campaign event, talking about how if his company wasn't making a profit, he wouldn't draw a salary. Sheehy didn't respond to the Free Press about if he is or isn't drawing a salary right now.

We've seen a lot of reaction to this story from Democrats who really capitalized on the report, saying it creates questions about if Montanans can trust Sheehy with their tax dollars, given the state of his business. You know, I think we've seen Sheehy's campaign be pretty quiet in response to this. What they're not being quiet about is their response to that Washington Post story that you mentioned, Corin. The story talks about how in 2015, Sheehy told a national park ranger that a gun discharge while he was in Glacier and resulted in a bullet being lodged in his right arm. But Sheehy told The Washington Post that the gunshot wound actually happened when he was in Afghanistan, and he didn't report it because he was worried it had come from a friendly fire incident. And he didn't want his platoon mates to get in trouble.

Democrats again have really capitalized on this, using the incident to call into question Sheehy's honesty, but Sheehy has not taken this quietly at all. He's come out swinging in posts on social media, going after the lead reporter of this Washington Post story. We've also seen Republicans really rally around Sheehy. That includes Donald Trump Jr., of course, Trump has endorsed Sheehy in the race, Trump the former president. And we've also seen the state Republican Party's chair put out statements making very clear their continued support.

Corin Cates-Carney: We're also seeing outside groups trying to get involved in this vote. That is a liberal PAC that's run an ad about the bullet in Sheehy's arm and spent money against Republicans in recent campaign cycles.

[Ad Sheehy] I have a bullet stuck in this arm still, from Afghanistan.

[Ad Announcer] Turns out that bullet Tim Sheehy brags on may not have been from the battlefield, but from Logan Pass parking lot ...

Corin Cates-Carney: There's a lot of back and forth on this particular story. And while this ad doesn't add clarity to what actually happened, Rob, who do you think the messaging about these stories is aimed at and who is it going to convince?

Rob Saldin: Well Corin, I tend to doubt that these stories are really going to sway too many voters because most voters just aren't open to being swayed these days in our intensely polarized political environment. So, it's just difficult for anything to make a big difference at this point.

Now, that said, there's good reason to think this is going to be a very close election, and in a really competitive race, little things can make a difference. These stories, and particularly the gunshot, are notable because they go to the core of who Sheehy is and how he's presenting himself to voters. He's made his military service and his success as a businessman absolutely central to what his campaign's about. And to the extent those things are discredited, that's a potentially existential problem for Sheehy's campaign. So, the stakes are big here.

The gunshot story from the Post, a lot of pieces of it don't make sense. And there are so many threads to pull on, and each little detail of the story, to my eye, just raises more questions. But ultimately, Corin, the thing that's most baffling about this, and the thing I keep coming back to, is that the truth is out there on this. It really shouldn't be hard to get to the bottom of this. And that's because for all the little details and all the inconsistencies and oddities, you can kind of set those aside and you're left with a situation that's really rather simple. And that is that there is a big difference between a slip and fall on the hiking trail and a gunshot wound. Certainly, trained medical professionals would be able to tell the difference. The report from the Kalispell hospital really should be able to resolve this definitively. But of course, that only raises the question of why Sheehy doesn't just release that report and be done with this thing.

Corin Cates-Carney: Moving on now to a poll that was out this week that shows a tight race for the U.S. Senate. The poll from JL Partners was given exclusively to Montana State News Bureau. Holly, that's your outfit. What are your takeaways?

Holly Michels: It's got Sheehy up with 48% to 45% for Tester. But that's within the margin of error for the poll, which is 4.3%. And about 7% of those who responded to the poll were undecided. You're looking at independents who likely play a pretty critical role in this race. Tester had 49% to Sheehy's 39%, with 11% still undecided. But as this poll noted, Sheehy's claiming enough of those independents to still be leading overall.

The poll also found that Sheehy's more popular with men, while Tester gets more support from women. Older respondents who tend to be a little bit more likely to actually vote, they favored Sheehy, while Tester's doing better with younger respondents.

The poll also asked about what issues people thought were most important facing Montana right now. Overall, people who responded put the economy and inflation as top, followed by border security and illegal immigration. But those top issues did vary based on what party a person says they're affiliated with. Republicans rank the economy and the border as top, while Democrats said it was threats to democracy.

I think anytime we get access to polls like this with a pretty decent sample size, we're always pretty excited to take a close look since there's so little public polling available in Montana. So I think this is a pretty good glimpse into how things look and still several months out from the general election.

Corin Cates-Carney: Right, we don't get much polling in Montana. Rob, we've had a handful of these released publicly about Montana's views of the Senate race and issues since campaigns kicked off last year. As the political scientist here, how much weight do you put into these snapshot views of the campaigns, and do you have any advice for listeners who hear or read these kind of polling results?

Rob Saldin: Yeah, well, polling is the best thing we have to go on. So, I put a fair amount of weight on it to be sure, Corin. It's not perfect, it has its limitations and in many respects, polling has become more challenging in recent years, with fewer people having landlines, fewer people being willing to participate in polling and so forth. But, you know, pollsters adjust to these things.

The other issue, Corin, is on the consumer side. A lot of people, I think, ascribe a level of precision to polling that's just inappropriate and doesn't take into account the margin of error. This one has Sheehy up by a few points. One from several weeks ago had Tester up by a couple. Well, those results, statistically speaking, are the same because they're both within the margin of error. So, you have to be aware of those kinds of things and not ask for a level of precision in polling that it just can't produce.

So, you know, what I see here, with this new poll, are results that are consistent with the previous polling on this race. They all paint the same picture, and that is that this race is close and competitive right now.

Corin Cates-Carney: During last week's Campaign Beat, you all talked about how loyalty to Donald Trump could be a factor in the crowded Eastern District Republican primary. But there's at least one candidate who is departing from that. Former state legislator from Sidney, Joel Krautter. Here he is taking a question at a recent fundraising event from former independent congressional candidate Gary Buchanan. The video was captured by the Billings Gazette.

Gary Buchanan: Are you going to support Donald Trump?

Joel Krautter: No.

Corin Cates-Carney: Pretty short and to the point there, Rob, we've seen some national conservative non-Trump coalitions form. But is there an audience for that in Montana, that's backed Trump by double digits in 2016 and 2020?

Rob Saldin: Right. It certainly distinguishes Krautter from the other candidates in the Republican primary, that's for sure. And it's a reflection of who he is. Krautter, maybe also worth noting, picked up an endorsement from the Montana Federation of Public Employees this week, that's the largest union in the state. And he's got some prominent folks like Gary Buchanan and Mark Racicot in this corner. So all these things certainly put him in a different space from Rehberg and Arntzen and Downing.

Now, that's certainly not your ticket to a majority in the Republican primary, right? He's playing on Liz Cheney turf here. And we've seen how that turned out for her and the long list of other anti-Trump conservatives. However, Corin, there is still an audience for that. It looks to me like Krautter is basically trying to cobble together something like the Nikki Haley coalition. Now, of course, Haley got creamed, but even after it became clear that she had zero chance of being the presidential nominee, she's still out there winning 25%, 30%, 35% of the vote in a lot of places. And the thing is, if Krautter could manage to consolidate something like that and pick up some Democrats who crossover, that actually could be enough to win. Now, that would require the big three, Rehberg, Downing and Arntzen to all be bunched up and running neck and neck with each other, splitting the rest of the vote. But if that were to happen, there might be a very narrow lane for Krautter to slip through. Anyway, it's a bit of a shoot the moon strategy, but it's not impossible. And in fact, Corin, you know, something like that happened back in 2014 when Ryan Zinke emerged out of a crowded Republican primary when the other candidates split the conservative vote.

Corin Cates-Carney: Lastly, another lawsuit has been filed against bills passed in recent legislative sessions. Holly, a group of school counselors, teachers and students are challenging sex education policies. Remind us what this law did and what the objections are.

Holly Michels: Broadly speaking, this law says that parents need to be notified before anything of a sexual nature is taught to their child in schools, and that parents have the option to opt-out of that. This law was passed back in 2021 after several previous attempts, and those attempts were vetoed by a Democratic governor. Then the state got a Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, who signed this bill into law.

The group of people who brought this lawsuit, what they're arguing is that because this law, they say, is too vague, they've experienced that certain works of literature have triggered this notification requirement that they don't think should be caught up in this. And they're also saying that the law has suppressed any teaching about the viewpoints of the LGBTQ and two-spirit community to the detriment of students, and has resulted in marginalization of certain students.

One plaintiff, who's a teacher in Billings, said that when parents of a student in his class objected to the student reading a book that he uses in his curriculum, the student ended up just spending a couple of weeks in the library and actually failing the course. There's a student who's a part of the lawsuit who said it felt like the law is being used to silence people. And school counselors and psychologists who are part of this lawsuit said that this law puts them in a difficult professional situation that's made it hard for them to serve children.

A spokesperson for Gov. Gianforte said that while they generally don't comment on litigation, the governor's committed to protecting a parent's right to know when their child can be exposed to sexually explicit content in school.

What plaintiffs are asking for here is an injunction to block the law while the legal process plays out. They're hoping to have it overturned ultimately. So, we'll be watching to see when a hearing get scheduled in this case.

Corin Cates-Carney: That's all we have time for this week. Rob and Holly, thank you both. Sally Mauk will be back with you next week.

Holly Michels: Thanks, Corin.

Rob Saldin: Thanks, Corin.

Campaign Beat is MTPR's weekly political analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspaper's State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Sitting in for host Sally Mauk is Montana Public Radio News Director Corin Cates-Carney. Tune in on-air Saturdays at 9:45 a.m. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Corrected: April 22, 2024 at 12:42 PM MDT
The original transcript misspelled Joel Krautter's last name. It is Krautter, not Crowder.
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Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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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