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Property tax blame game; Gianforte weighs-in on legislative races

Voter outrage over high property taxes is a big campaign issue, but how will that translate at the polls? Gov. Gianforte's primary endorsements aren't sitting well with some Republicans. Jon Tester unveils a new hard-hitting ad against his opponent Tim Sheehy. Tim Sheehy has a new ad with a powerful message about his military service.

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.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Montana's high property taxes are a top issue this election season, but who will politically benefit and who will suffer from it is the big question. The Washington Post did a story this week implying Republicans will be blamed and that will hurt them at the polls, but I'm not so sure.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, well, that's the question, Sally. I think it's pretty clear at this point that this is going to be absolutely central to Ryan Busse's campaign, and it's a good issue for him. Property taxes hit a lot of people. They've gone way up in much of the state. There were warnings that exactly this was going to happen ahead of the last legislative session. You've got Republican county commissioners blaming it on their fellow Republicans in Helena, most notably Gianforte. And it takes an issue — taxes, that's traditionally been a strength for Republicans and is attempting to turn it into a liability. It also fits in nicely to that larger portrayal of Gianforte as a rich guy who's out for himself and his buddies, and who's out of touch with regular Montanans. For all those reasons, it's no wonder Busse has seized on this as a central pillar of his campaign. But as you suggest, I think whether that is going to be enough to break through is obviously an open question, because Gianforte still has a lot of advantages. Incumbent governors usually get reelected. The state has trended much more Republican in recent years. Trump is on the ballot and will presumably draw out some of his supporters who otherwise wouldn't vote, and so on.

But the other key thing here, Sally, I think that's worth pointing out, is that there's something of a structural issue going on here, and I'm not sure how many voters focus on this, but looking at the tax base, one part of this is that you've just got limited room to maneuver in a state where there's no sales tax, and where even raising the prospect of maybe thinking about that as a possible revenue source moving forward has been just a total third rail, which, by the way, to an outside observer, that might seem very odd, because after all, nearly every other state has a sales tax and it would capture a lot of revenue from tourists. But anyway, that's a big slice of the revenue pie for nearly every other state. But no one seems to have a stomach for thinking about it here. So, property tax is inevitably just going to be a key revenue source and it is subject to these kinds of swings that we've experienced here recently. But regardless of all that, just on the politics, the situation we find ourselves in does present Busse with a really nice issue to lean into.

Sally Mauk: And he is leaning into it pretty heavily. Speaking of Republicans, Holly, Governor Gianforte is picking his favorites in some of the legislative primary races, and the Republicans he's not supporting are not happy about that.

Holly Michels: These endorsements are pretty interesting. Political observers that I talked with couldn't remember a time before where a governor has leaned in on the primary so heavy like this, really putting his thumb on the makeup of the legislature he wants to work with if he's reelected.

You're right Sally, these endorsements are making some people pretty unhappy. Gianforte is taking a nod here toward more moderate candidates in Republican contested primaries, and there's some fairly notable snubs he's doing as well. Up in the Flathead, The Flathead Beacon reported that Gianforte didn't endorse the sitting state House Speaker, Matt Regier, who is running in a primary for a Senate seat and facing a primary challenger. The Beacon asked him about that specific choice, and Gianforte just generally told the Beacon he's backing candidates he wants to be strong partners with. Regier told the Beacon that he's confident in his record and he's confident the voters will give him the only endorsement that matters in the end.

Over in Cascade County, Gianforte is endorsing Representative Josh Kassmier over the Vice Chair of the state party. That's Representative Lola Sheldon-Galloway in a Senate race. Kassmier's carried some pretty big bills for Gianforte in the past, and he can be more moderate than Sheldon-Galloway. Sheldon-Galloway again has said that she is looking to see, you know, voters are having the final say here.

Over in Gallatin County, Gianforte is endorsing the former state Lottery Director under him, Scott Sales, over Republicans Caleb Hinkle and Jennifer Carlson in a House district race. After that endorsement came out, we saw Hinkle give money to Gianforte's primary challenger, Tanner Smith in that governor primary. We also saw Jane Gilette, who's the subject of her opponent getting Gianforte's endorsement, and Hinkle issue a call for a special legislative session. That's about the judiciary, which is a pretty typical Republican punching bag, but they actually use that call for a special session to take a pretty good swipe at Gianforte, saying if he's a real Conservative, he'd call the legislature back himself for a special session.

So seeing some infighting here in the party. I think, we'll be pretty curious to see what those Gianforte endorsements mean in the primary. There's also some spending going on backing some of these more moderate candidates. There's a political committee called Conservatives for Montana that recently spent $35,000 to send about 12,000 mailers backing these moderates. So you're in for a pretty interesting primary in some of these races.

Sally Mauk: Interesting for sure. Rob, I think it's clear Gianforte, like all governors, he wants legislators he can work with.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, absolutely. He wants people who are going to be team players and team players on the team that he leads. The other thing that I note, Sally, is just that this is the latest reflection of a dynamic that we've been talking about on this program for years, and that is the split within the Montana Republican Party between the more conservative element and the relatively moderate element. What's maybe somewhat surprising here is that Gianforte seems to be putting his finger on the scales in a way that would advantage the moderates.

Sally Mauk: Holly, in the U.S Senate race, Jon Tester has a new ad attacking his opponent, Tim Sheehy. And here's that ad:

Tester ad: (I'm Jon Tester and I approve this message)....Tim Sheehy isn't telling us the truth. ‘Tim Sheehy said he lied about a gunshot wound on his arm'. 'He lied to a park ranger about how... We also know Tim was exposed as a fake cowboy. Now we find out he lied about where he grew up, and Tim's even trying to hide that his business is failing...' Over allegations that he lied about...' 'He lied'....'He admits to telling lies.’ ‘The only thing we know for sure — we can't trust 'Shady' Sheehy.

Sally Mauk: In this ad, Holly, Sheehy is painted as a serial liar with quotes from various news coverage, including a quote taken from this program - and as they often do in these ads, they use a very short snippet that someone has said and then try to paint it in a way that favors their candidate. Something that reporters like me and you and others don't appreciate.

Holly Michels: I think all of us reporters kind of cringe when we see a headline or lines from stories that we've written used in campaign ads, because they are oftentimes a little bit out of context to make whatever point a campaign or committee is going after. But this ad against Sheehy, you know, it's Tester coming out pretty strong, highlighting a lot of negative press that Sheehy's been getting. There's the gunshot wound issue like we just talked about that we've referenced many times on this show before, with Sheehy saying he was wounded when he was in combat and that he lied to a ranger in Glacier Park about what happened. There's also this 'fake cowboy' claim that Tester and Democrats are circulating around Sheehy. He co-owns a ranch, and they're saying that he bought into a ranch. He didn't come about it the way Montanans like to say that they came into ranching - through many generations of their family. It's also going after Sheehy on where he grew up. He's talked about before growing up in rural Minnesota, but reporting has shown that it's a more suburban, wealthy setting that a lot of Montanans probably wouldn't consider rural for what is rural in Montana. It talks about his business, Bridger Aerospace, failing. You know, there's reporting from Montana Free Press that showing that it has some significant debt. The Sheehy campaign has pushed back against that, saying that that's just how their business is trying to grow. But this is Tester really collecting a lot of that press that Sheehy's gotten and putting it in one place, using it to say, 'Hey, you know, we don't think you can trust this guy. Here's everything we're looking at.'

Sally Mauk: Rob, this is a very hard-hitting ad, and it's maybe an indication of just how seriously Jon Tester is taking the challenge from Tim Sheehy. He's in a close race, and he knows it.

Rob Saldin: Absolutely. It's not holding back one bit in this ad. The gloves are off. And, I think we're going to be hearing a lot about this kind of stuff for the next five, six months, whatever it is. This is clearly going to be at the center of the Democratic campaign. They're going to try to make this about Sheehy's character; that the guy, at root, is a liar and can't be trusted.

Sally Mauk: Holly, Sheehy has his own new ad out, and this one features a wounded veteran who served with Sheehy in Afghanistan. Here's that ad.

Scott Weaver - a Navy combat veteran: 'I deployed to Afghanistan as a Navy bomb tech. Tim Sheehy and I served dozens of missions together under constant attack. Tim and I were wounded by the same IED, earning Purple Hearts that same day. Even though Tim was hurt, he was looking out for me. He tended to my wounds and he got me out safe. Tim is brave, selfless, a real leader. And Jon Tester's attacks on Tim's character are disgusting. Tim Sheehy is a real patriot, and he's exactly who we need in Washington.' (I'm Tim Sheehy and I approve this message.)

Sally Mauk: This ad is no frills, Holly, but it has a powerful message and is definitely a counterpoint to what John Tester is trying to portray.

Holly Michels: Yeah, it is a pretty powerful ad, Sally. It is Sheehy's response, I think, to that gunshot/Glacier Park issue. And though it doesn't directly get into what happened there, it's got a fellow Navy combat veteran talking about when he and Sheehy were both wounded by an IED and received Purple Hearts. To be clear, that incident is not what is in question. It's not the same thing as the Glacier Park gunshot thing. But this ad is really heavy on military imagery. It plays up Sheehy as a war hero, which is something he's really highlighted during this campaign. It's got this veteran, Scott Weaver, saying that even though Sheehy was wounded, he helped him out first. Then the ad pivots, like you said, going directly after Tester, saying that Tester's attacks against Sheehy are 'disgusting'. Sheehy's campaign is trying to say that Tester's behind this oppo research that unearthed this whole Glacier Park/gunshot issue. And then like we just talked about, Tester's come out with an ad highlighting that you're trying to say voters can't trust Sheehy. So this ad feels like Sheehy's responding to that without directly answering the question of where the gunshot came from. He recently told Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar in an interview that he's not releasing his medical records. That would likely clear that up, but he is coming at it pretty directly in this ad.

Sally Mauk: Rob, Sheehy clearly wanted some help with his military service messaging, and he got good help in this ad. I think it is something that's going to reinforce the message he's trying to give about his background.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, definitely reinforces the message. It's a nice testimonial from a guy who served with Sheehy and has a good story to tell. Holly, you're exactly right. It's basically a response - a somewhat vague response - to the core message about Democrats on Sheehy's character. And to my eye at least, Sally - and as we've discussed on the program -Sheehy hasn't helped himself very much as these various questions have emerged that you hit on, Holly. His general reaction has seemed to be one of indignation that everyone doesn't just take his word for it. Holly, you mentioned the interview with Shaylee - at this point, it does seem to look like we may never get any direct and satisfactory responses to some of the discrepancies that have emerged, including the gunshot. It may be that basically the only response we get is, 'Sheehy is a war hero'. Full stop. Nothing more needs to be said. And that is essentially the message here in the ad. No direct mention of the issue at hand, but it clearly seems to be pointing to, some of the issues the Tester hit on in his spot, kind of nods in that direction, but without going anywhere close to the specifics.

Sally Mauk: Well, it's hard to believe it's already almost June, but Holly, Rob, thanks. 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.
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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