Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Shying away from the spotlight; Ducking the debates; Trashing transplants

Tim Sheehy seemed to shy away from the spotlight when Don Jr. came to campaign. Congressional candidates who showed up to debate talk immigration, climate change and transplants; Schools superintendent candidate faces legal troubles.

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: Rob, Republican Senate candidate Tim Sheehy had a couple of notable appearances this past week. One before a friendly crowd of supporters hosted by Donald Trump Jr. in Missoula.

Rob Saldin: Right, Sally. A lot of optimism in that room. A lot of confidence — and, probably for good reason. My main takeaway, though, was just a reminder that Sheehy is a novice at this and that that always carries some downside risk. I found it quite surprising that Sheehy seemed to be reluctant to engage with the people at the event. These were, of course, his people. These are hardcore, committed Republicans. They paid money to be there, right? This was not a public event. Holly and I were there, and we arrived shortly after the doors opened and well before the program kicked off. So, you know, people are just milling about and such. Zinke was there, as you'd expect, working the room, chatting people up, posing for pictures and so on, but not Sheehy. Sheehy arrived late. Even once he did show up, he hung back behind a partition and just seemed awfully reluctant to engage with the crowd.

That struck me as odd, Sally, particularly for a new and largely still unknown candidate who you would think would be eager to get out there and build relationships with exactly the types of people who were in that room. I don't know if that's a matter of being nervous or feeling awkward, or if he just finds the thought of idle chit chat with a whole bunch of strangers to be tedious or exhausting or something like that. And on a personal level, I can sympathize with all of those feelings. But, you know, that's part of the gig that he signed up for in doing this, and it's not like it's going to stop at the end of the campaign. If he's successful, he's going to be having to do things like this all the time.

Sally Mauk: Sheehy has a joke he likes to make on the campaign trail that he repeated in Missoula, making fun of what he considers 'woke' pronouns. And here's what he said:

Tim Sheehy: I'm Tim Sheehy. Those are also my pronouns. I've been a he/she for 38 years. In third grade I hated my last name. It was terrible, getting made fun of all the time and that's why I became a Navy SEAL — I had to live it down. Now I love it. It's great. I'm a welcome species today. That illustrates the lunacy that we are living in in this country right now.

Sally Mauk: And Rob, he's hammering the culture war stuff again.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, for sure. Lots of pronoun jokes last Sunday. That one by Sheehy went over well with the crowd, and it was actually a rare moment of levity in an otherwise rather somber set of remarks from Sheehy. You could tell in that clip where he's transitioning from something intended to be lighthearted to something else.

But, yeah, you know, I thought just in terms of performance and style, Sheehy wasn't necessarily bad, but there was a real contrast with the others. Sheehy just doesn't come off as polished and comfortable in that setting, as do the others: Zinke and Gianforte and Don Jr. — these are all real pros when they get behind the podium and they have a natural way of engaging with an audience. Sheehy still has some work to do in that department, though. That probably isn't a surprise for someone who's never had to do this before.

Sally Mauk: Sheehy also had a rare TV interview with NBC Montana's Heidi Meili this past week, and he was much more comfortable at the Missoula rally than he was in that interview.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, for sure. The interview went poorly. Part of it was just the words that came out of his mouth. His dismissal of a whole series of news outlets was just silly and not serious. He is not really yet, Sally, come close to a reasonable answer for the various issues that have cropped up recently, some of which at least might in fact have some reasonable and understandable explanations. But the other piece of it is just how he carries himself in that interview. As I was saying a moment before there were also shades of this in the appearance on Sunday before the faithful. In the interview, though, it was very awkward. He doesn't smile. He doesn't look at the person he's talking with, and he just manages to channel a sense of bitterness. There's a feeling like he's having a really miserable time.

The good news for him is that with some basic media training and a little practice, you can make a lot of improvement in a short amount of time in terms of how you present yourself in these settings. There are some good examples of that that we're all familiar with. I think of Governor Bullock and Governor Gianforte. This kind of thing wasn't always a natural strength for them either. But over the years, their communication style improved and arguably turned into a strength for both of them. Sheehy could develop some of these skills, too. But the one thing you can't really coach a candidate on is to enjoy something that they hate. If Sheehy really is as miserable as he looks in some of these situations, that's a problem. There's not necessarily an easy fix for that.

Sally Mauk: Well, if he wants some more practice, the press is eager to give him that opportunity. For sure. Holly, some of the candidates for the Eastern District congressional seat took part this week in debates sponsored by the Montana Farmers Union. The Republican debate is the most interesting because this is likely going to remain a Republican seat.

Holly Michels: I think people in this district are pretty eager to learn more about these Republican candidates because, like you said, it's a pretty safe Republican district. The person who wins this primary has a fairly good chance at becoming the representative.

It originally looked like we were going to get seven of the eight candidates in this race to debate, but we ended up with only four participating. Mike Dennison, the former reporter who hosted the debate, said that Troy Downing, Elsie Arntzen and Stacy Zinn had all committed to attending but withdrew over a 24 hour period before the forum. And then Denny Rehberg said he would not attend. So that left us with Kyle Austin, Ken Bogner, Ric Holden and Joel Krautter.

All four of these men played up their rural backgrounds, and a lot of the debate questions focused pretty heavily on stuff related to agriculture. One of those questions touched on a major issue for campaigns so far this season: the southern border and the role that migrant workers play in the ag industry in Montana. Bogner said he would want to reenact a 'Remain in Mexico' policy and keep building out the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. But he also said he wanted to reform legal immigration paths.

Austin said he thought that the wall was just a tool, but that Mexico is really to blame. He said he wanted to improve the H-2A visa program for temporary ag workers by better connecting people who are seeking work with farmers and ranchers looking for those employees.

Krautter said he'd like to see a more beefed up merit-based legal immigration system. He also said he wanted to make sure those H-2A visas are still a strong, robust program. He did also make a point of saying he's visited the border, and he does want to see it more secure.

Holden said he'd like to see the border entirely closed. And if he was in Congress, he would give the president authority to bring in the military to accomplish that.

I think another place we saw some daylight between these candidates was on climate change. Bogner came out and said he doesn't think it's a human-caused issue, and he thinks the free market should be dictating what happens in terms of energy options. Holden just flat out denied climate change is happening and said there shouldn't be any government spending to address it. Both Austin and Krautter, though, acknowledge climate change is real, happening, and Austin said that farmers are on ground zero experiencing it. Krautter said he'd like to see an all-of-the-above energy portfolio, but he doesn't want Congress to have a heavy hand in that.

Sally Mauk: Rob, as Holly mentioned, the leading candidates in the Eastern District Republican primary chose not to attend the debate, and at least two of the candidates who did participate, Ken Bogner and Kyle Austin, took them to task for not showing up.

Bogner: When things get tough, they didn't have the cajones to show up and be in front of here and answer the tough questions.

Austin: I am tired of people electing transplants. The people that didn't show up tonight — those are transplants. Do not vote for them. Vote for someone that is Montana born and raised and understands what you need.

Sally Mauk: Rob, there are a lot of Republican and Democratic candidates who are 'transplants'.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, there are. Look, Sally, these second tier candidates need to draw some distinctions and figure out a way to get some traction and this is one way of doing that. In fact, there's quite a long bipartisan tradition of drawing just these kinds of distinctions between the real Montanans and the transplants. We've seen that quite a lot. I'm not always entirely sure how effective it is. It probably resonates on some level, but this is a state with a lot of transplants, depending on how you define that term.

The other thing we saw there in terms of hitting the candidates on not showing up to the debate — it does this dynamic in which increasingly candidates kind of see debates as optional. There is even some questions about whether we will have presidential debates this cycle or not. I guess I'm not entirely convinced we're necessarily going to have them for the Senate race. You see that here. And the candidates who aren't there are the top tier candidates. One wonders if we've gotten to a point where they just see it as something that carries more downside risk than potential upside, and that if the voters aren't going to hold them accountable for not showing up to these things that, you know, better off to skip it.

Sally Mauk: Well, hopefully the voters will hold them accountable for that, because it is a great way for the public to differentiate among the candidates a lot better than just going by TV ads, for example.

Rob Saldin: Well, right. And you combine the increasing proclivity to just not debate, along with the increasing proclivity of not giving interviews to the media or not giving very many interviews to the media, and you just aren't left with a whole lot to go on at that point.

Sally Mauk: Absolutely. Holly, a Republican candidate for state school superintendent Sharyl Allen, is facing a misdemeanor charge of obstructing justice. She's pled not guilty to that, but this can't be good for her campaign.

Holly Michels: No, I don't think so, Sally. Allen is the superintendent of Harrison Public Schools, and what she's accused of doing is preventing a Department of Criminal Investigation agent from interviewing students who they think could be victims of crimes that are possibly tied to a teacher who's been fired from that school district. A peace officer said that Allen stepped in to stop law enforcement from conducting interviews with students, citing a need for parental consent. As Allen was doing that, she actually invoked the name of Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen and his chief of staff saying that she had a working relationship with them.

Knudsen's office has said that in this case, the law enforcement officials were just doing their jobs, and that what Allen said about having a relationship with him was an inappropriate thing to bring up at that time. Allen has said she'll plead not guilty to the charge.

We haven't really heard anything about how this may or may not affect her campaign. She's been at the school district for less than a year, and had already said she wasn't returning for a second year because she needed to take care of a sick family member. At a school board meeting recently, trustees discussed maybe taking immediate action on her contract, but they didn't make any decisions there. The Missoulian's Dave Erickson has also previously reported that Allen's left other superintendent jobs because of concerns about her performance.

She is, like you said, in this Republican primary for the open Superintendent of Public Instruction job. Current Superintendent Elsie Arntzen's termed out, and she's running in that eastern House race like we talked about earlier. Like her primary opponent, Susie Hedalen, Allen's been a deputy under Arntzen and in that race, there's some actual high profile endorsements — Republicans lining up to support Hedalen including Knudsen. Allen hasn't said if any of this changes her plans for candidacy, but I think you're right Sally, this will be a factor in that race.

Sally Mauk: Well, Holly, Rob, we're out of time. Thank you.

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.

Stay Connected
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'.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information