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Cash pours into the Senate race; Sheehy bullet story doesn't add up; The press gets pushed out

The mystery of the lodged bullet continues. Is it fair for candidates to both criticize and shun the press? As expected, campaign fundraising is breaking records.

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. Tune in on-air Saturdays at 9:45 a.m. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Republican Senate candidate Tim Sheehy keeps making headlines about how he got a bullet lodged in his arm. He admits to telling lies about it, and the truth remains elusive as new information comes out. Either he was shot in Afghanistan or in Glacier Park — and if it was or was not in Glacier — Rob, there's an easy way to find out.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, yeah, there is, Sally. And I'm not sure he's just going to be able to run out the clock on this one, because you're right, this could all very easily be cleared up if he released his medical records from that trip to the Kalispell hospital. Big picture, Sally, I think this story is potentially really damaging for a couple of reasons. First, it goes to the heart of who Sheehy is and how he's presenting himself to voters. The one thing he wants you to know is that he's a war hero. Well, to the extent that that is now under question, that's a significant problem. The second reason is that it captures and reinforces what I think we're seeing Democrats zero in on as a larger, more comprehensive narrative about Sheehy, and that is that he's dishonest, that he's playing fast and loose with the facts to advance his political ambitions. So, it's not just this gunshot wound issue which just on its own, is now a multi-week story and is taking on a drip, drip character, but it's all of the other knocks that we're increasingly seeing on Sheehy.

Sally Mauk: Holly, meanwhile, Sheehy criticizes the press for reporting these stories, but at the same time, he's not doing interviews with Montana reporters.

Holly Michels: Yeah, Sally, this is something that's become prevalent and only increased in that since I've been on this job, which was at the end of 2015. You were seeing, especially from Republican candidates, far more of a reliance on press releases and statements issued by campaign spokespeople and far less interviews, sitting down with candidates themselves.

Looking at this follow up reporting on what you and Rob were just talking about the Washington Post had about Sheehy, we're seeing Sheehy over social media have a lot of criticism of the Post's reporting. But what we're not seeing is Sheehy talking to local press, who are also trying to do their own follow ups about this story. The campaign might issue a statement, but we're not on the phone with the candidate. Prior to this, there is a profile piece the Montana Free Press wrote about Sheehy. That piece noted it was based on public records, press clippings, and a lengthy statement from the Sheehy campaign, but not an interview with Sheehy. Like you and Rob were just talking about, there's a desire to get to know more about Sheehy and his background since he is a political newcomer.

And like I said, this isn't new. In Tester's last race in 2018, I faced a pretty big lift getting a profile of his Republican challenger, Matt Rosendale in that race. It took a lot of pressing and then an interview coming together at the last minute out at his ranch in Glendive. Again, sort of that reporting that helps the voters understand who this candidate is. So, it's a trend we've been noticing that's just been increasing over the last few years.

Sally Mauk: Rob, if Sheehy is this unaccountable as a candidate, one has to wonder how accountable he would be as a senator.

Rob Saldin: I think that's a reasonable question, Sally and Holly was just talking about the fact that this is something we're seeing more and more, and it does risk interfering with one of those key aspects that a democracy requires, and that is the ability for voters — of citizens — to hold their elected officials accountable. And it should be a concern in a very general sense if this is breaking down.

Holly Michels: You know, I wanted to note it is a challenge to get candidates from both parties on the phone sometimes, you know — especially when they're elected officials — reaching them. But we do in Montana, I think, have more success reaching Democrats. I think that's also because they're more eager to be in the press, get their name out there, since they're generally challenging Republicans from a place where it's a little harder for them to get footing.

Sally Mauk: Well, Holly, the first quarter fundraising numbers are in, and to no one's surprise, the Senate race between Sheehy and Jon Tester is setting records and Tester has a huge lead in money raised so far.

Holly Michels: Yeah, he does. Tester outraised Sheehy by more than double, and then ended this first quarter of the year with six times the amount of cash left on hand. Tester brought in about $8,000,000 to Sheehy’s $3,100,000. And also worth taking into account here that over this quarter Sheehy loaned himself $500,000.

Now, breaking down where the money's coming from: about 85% of Testers's money is coming from individuals. And on the spending side, his campaign spent more than $6,500,000. in the first quarter of the year, but he still had a pretty decent amount of money — $12.6 million in the bank. That loan that Sheehy gave his campaign —- about 16% of his haul has come from himself, and then two thirds have come from contributions from individuals. His campaign spent about $2.4 million this quarter and left just shy of $2,000,000 in the bank. Over his whole campaign, he's loaned himself about $1,400,000. Looking at the race overall at this point, Tester's already raised $28 million, which is more than what he brought in during all of his 2018 race, which at that point was the most expensive in state history, according to reporting from the Montana Television Network.

Sheehy's $8.4 million for the race so far is also outpacing what Matt Rosendale, the Republican who's challenged Tester raised in that 2018 race. But it is pretty critical for a challenger to bring in some money to elevate their status. I think it's also important to note here that outside groups backing and opposing these candidates have already spent millions and are only going to spend more as this race goes on. So, the candidates own fundraising and spending isn't all we're watching here.

Of course, fundraising isn't a direct correlation to support. In 2020, which became the most expensive Senate race in state history, Democratic challenger Steve Bullock outraised Republican incumbent Steve Daines by about $47 million to $27 million, but Daines still won by 10%. Money, it has some meaning — we report on it, but it also it’s not really the cleanest way to look at support.

Sally Mauk: Right, that's a good point. Holly. Rob, a PAC supporting Tester, has a new ad out featuring a rancher from Power, Montana. And here's that ad.

TV ad featuring rancher Tim B.: This ranch is how I make my living. We run cattle and sell alfalfa. But let me tell you what Tim Sheehy sells on his ranch; pink hoodies, trucker hats, and cute little cups with his logo on it. Tim Sheehy's not a rancher. He's a rich out-of-stater who bought a ranch to play cowboy. Now Sheehy's trying to buy our Senate seat, too. So, here's what I'm saying: Montana is not for sale.

Sally Mauk: The slogan 'Montana is not for sale' is not a new one in political campaigns in Montana, Rob.

Rob Saldin: No. No, it's not, Sally. You know, this strikes me as just another example of what we were talking about a few minutes ago, that Sheehy's in some fundamental way, dishonest. This seems to be the emerging message from Democrats, right? And here we have, you know - Sheehy says he's a rancher, but in reality, is just faking it. He's more focused on hawking merch from his pretend ranch than doing anything that might get his hands dirty, which is something of a retread in itself of the old knock on Denny Rehberg from 2012 as a mansion rancher. But again, it's consistent with that narrative that we see in the gunshot story and in this ad, you’re right Sally, it's connected to that now kind of classic greatest hits attack that we've seen Montana Democrats routinely trot out about out of staters who basically they describe as carpetbaggers. And I think that probably still does resonate on some level.

I'm reminded of Pat Williams, the former Democratic congressman who has this kind of quippy line that captures something here. He says, 'If Montana were a nation, it would be one of the most nationalistic nations on earth.' And there's probably something to that, perhaps for both good and bad. Now, that said, Sally, it's also the case that, you know, something like half of the state was born elsewhere. And as we all know, there have been a lot of new folks moving here in recent years. And then I always also just go back to two of the fundamental dynamics at work today. We live in a highly polarized environment, and our political information ecosystem is heavily nationalized. And those forces go a long way toward blunting this kind of attack. And, for that matter, any kind of effects that are a direct outgrowth of things that the candidates or their campaigns or their supporters do or say. Now, it doesn't mean that this stuff doesn't matter, just that it doesn't matter as much as it would have, say, 10 or 20 years ago, because so much is locked in these days.

Sally Mauk: Holly, in the Western District House race, Republican Ryan Zinke, has outraised Democrat Monica Tranel 2 to 1. And that's not really a surprise. Incumbents always have the fundraising advantage.

Holly Michels: Yeah, Sally, I think you're right. There's no surprises here. Zinke raised $1,500,000 over the first quarter compared to about $750,000 for Tranel and over the race so far, Zinke's brought in $5,200,000 to Tranel’s $1,900,000. She did end the quarter with $1,300,000 left in the bank compared to Zinke's $2,300,000. This race, it’s a rematch of 2022. That's the first time in decades Montana had a western congressional district for someone to run in and in that race Zinke also outraised Tranel 2 to 1. Zinke, does have a primary challenger, Mary Todd. She brought in $75,000, though $71,000 of that was her own money. One thing we're watching for in this race is how support that's been promised from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will materialize. That's a group that works to get Democrats elected to the House. And they put Tranel on their 'Red to Blue' program, which connects candidates with fundraising, strategic and organizational support and staffing resources and candidate training. But it's not really clear yet what that might look like, especially in terms of money as this race unfolds.

Sally Mauk: Holly, in the crowded Eastern District congressional race, Republican Troy Downing is leading the pack in fundraising.
Holly Michels: Yeah. So, I think this is a race where money will probably have a pretty big significance, since it's such a crowded primary field on the Republican side, and those candidates are working to get their name out in front of voters. And the seat's open with incumbent Republican Matt Rosendale not running for reelection. Like you said, Troy Downing is leading the pack. He's the state auditor. He raised about $955,000, though $350,000 of that has been in loans from Downing. He's also spent the most so far this race, spending $630,000 over the election. Next up in fundraising is Elsie Arntzen. She's the Superintendent of Public Instruction. She's raised about $800,000 over the race, but $700,000 of that has come from a loan that she gave herself. Arntzen has spent about $430,000 so far. And third place here is former Congressman Denny Rehberg. He's raised about $380,000. But again, $300,000 of that is come from a loan he gave himself. Rehberg joined the race pretty late, and he's spent just about $7,000 so far. In the Republican side, the rest of the field, no one except Ed Walker, who announced that he's actually dropping out of the race, has cracked $100,000 in fundraising.

Sally Mauk: Well, Rob, Troy Downing's lead over Arntzen and Rehberg is maybe a little surprising, given their long political histories and name recognition.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, maybe a little. I guess to me, Sally, the thing that really stands out is that we see a real separation between the top three candidates and all the others. But for those top three - Downing, Arntzen and Rehberg - I think they're all in a position to surpass that threshold of having the necessary resources to get their message out in more or less the way they want to. So, you know, yes, Downing has raised more than the others, but he's also spent more than the others. I'd also say it's worth noting that Rehberg got in quite late, so that's probably part of the reason his numbers look a bit lackluster. But at the end of the day, Sally, they all have nearly identical amounts of money in terms of cash on hand moving forward. So that is the money that they have access to for the home stretch that we are basically in at this point of this primary season, which is going to play out over the next six weeks.

Sally Mauk: I think it's worth repeating the point Holly made earlier, too, that not everyone who raises the most money always wins. Rob and Holly, we're out of time. Thank you.

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. 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.
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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