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Tester is in, Racicot is out and moderates rack up some wins

Democrats cheer Senator Tester's re-election bid. Republicans excommunicate former governor Marc Racicot. Moderates celebrate a couple of tough legislative victories. And everyone is scrambling to meet the deadline to transfer bills from one chamber to the next.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and 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 Well, Rob, I don't think Senator Jon Tester surprised anyone when he announced this week he's running for re-election. And Democrats, both in Montana and elsewhere in the country, breathed a sigh of relief.

Rob Saldin Yeah, that's right, Sally. This is shaping up to be a tough cycle for Senate Democrats. They're defending 20 seats, several of which are very good pickup opportunities for Republicans. The Republicans, meanwhile, they're only defending 11 seats. None of which appear to be very competitive. So, Chuck Schumer is certainly thrilled. If Tester had decided to retire, the seat would likely flip to the Republicans. S

So, you know, now I think the attention is going to turn to who the Republican nominee is going to be for the Senate seat, the obvious candidates being Congressmen Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale. I've seen a little speculation about Gianforte as well, though that would really surprise me. Gianforte, it seems, always wanted to be governor. Things have been going very well for him. He can run for another term in two years and he's in a very strong position to be re-elected. So I'd be quite surprised if he turned his back on all that for what would probably be, you know, at best, a 50/50 shot at the Senate. In the unlikely event that Zinke and Rosendale decided to stay in the House, there are, of course, some other folks waiting in the wings, like Austin Knudsen and Troy Downing. But I suspect it's more likely that both Rosendale and Zinke go for it, in which case we'd have a barnburner of a GOP primary before a general election between the winner of that primary and Tester, which is guaranteed to be one of the most watched and the most expensive campaigns in the country.

Sally Mauk In an interview before he announced, Tester repeated advice he has for any Democrats, including himself, on how to win in Montana.

"You got to meet Montanans where they're at, and I can tell you that as the Republicans have won it, it all has it been because of their good fortune. It's because we've had a lot of folks out there that haven't met people where they're at and talked to folks at their doorstep. And you got to go visit with them. And by the way, typical policy makers tend to talk too much and listen too little," Tester said.

Sally Mauk I think, Rob, that advice was followed by Democrats like Monica Tranel and Steve Bullock and their run for the House and the Senate, and it didn't work.

Rob Saldin Yeah, you know, Bullock, I think would tell you that the pandemic played a big role in that back in 2020 by limiting the extent to which he and his campaign could show up and engage people across the state directly. But yeah, probably not to the point that you make up 10 points, but, you know, yeah, this is going to be another tough one for Tester. Of course, he's never had an easy election, but to me the thing that stands out is just the broader political environment in which he's operating. It's become a lot more challenging. When he first ran for the Senate, Montana was a legitimately purple state, and that's just not true anymore. And a lot of that reflects national trends.

You know, arguably the most defining feature of American politics right now is geographic polarization. That is the urban-rural divide in which urban areas are increasingly Democratic and rural areas are increasingly, and increasingly overwhelmingly, going to Republicans. And this isn't exactly a new dynamic, but in recent years it's accelerated considerably. And in a state like Montana, that is just big time bad news for Democrats. You know, this is a five-alarm fire type of stuff for that party. And it's what led to that across-the-board wipeout we saw in 2020. So, you know, bottom line, Tester has his work cut out for him. He does, of course, have that name recognition now that is going to help a lot. You know, he fits the state really well in so many ways, but this is certainly shaping up to be another really competitive election.

Montana’s only statewide elected Democrat will seek reelection to the U.S. Senate. Jon Tester’s campaign launch gives a boost to Democrats’ 2024 hopes of holding on to their slim majority in the upper chamber.

Sally Mauk And of course, he has the advantage of incumbency. Holly, Senator Tester and the other three members of Montana's congressional delegation were in Helena this week to separately address the Legislature. And their speeches, I think were true to form and all were politely received.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think we heard a lot of what you'd expect from the delegation, and we also heard from the chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and it was pretty fascinating, given what Rob just said, about how three of the people we heard from could be in their respective Senate primaries for the Republican, and Tester in the general. So, it was interesting, I think a lot of us were hoping Tester might have announced and given us some news that day. But he spoke first. And like you said, you know pretty much what you'd expect. He talked a lot about progress in Montana and the rest the nation's made since the start of the pandemic, talking about the federal efforts and money behind that. Republicans who spoke, and especially Steve Daines here, also talked about that recovery that gave a lot more of the credit to Governor Gianforte compared to Tester referencing those huge federal stimulus packages. Tester also did talk about policies Democrats in the Legislature have been working to push this session, making things like child care and health care more affordable and stabilizing nursing homes. He was at one point pretty sharp, saying that the state didn't need to be helping out the rich over those priorities. But he did talk about bipartisanship and make a pitch to lawmakers about working across the aisle.

On Daines' speech, I think the most notable part was the time he spent talking about his brief ban from Twitter for posting a photo, we talked about before, of him and his wife after a successful antelope hunt. He even brought a photo prop of that image from the tweet. Daines was critical, you know, we talked about this before, again, of what he called coastal elites. He talked about conversations he had with Twitter CEO Elon Musk about policy changes there. And he spent a lot of time on that Twitter ban.

But he did also hit pretty hard on some standard Republican attacks against the Biden administration over the southern border and Montana's fentanyl problems and also dipped into culture war issues a little bit.

I think Zinke was kind of the most freewheeling of the group and talked at a pretty high level about his frustrations with congressional spending, lands management, foreign affairs and energy development. But he also, like Tester, got into bipartisanship a fair bit and talked about, even how Montana has two new House districts now — he's in the western one — he thinks the needs are pretty similar between east and west.

And I think probably the most interesting thing we heard from Rosendale, is he talked a lot about the vote for the Speaker of the House back in Congress that went 15 rounds earlier this year. And where Rosendale was one of the holdouts that made it take that long. You know, he told the Legislature he felt the small Republican majority in Congress has actually turned out to be a blessing since it gave the Freedom Caucus, which he's a part of, the ability to negotiate and gain things they wanted from Speaker McCarthy during that progress. And Rosendale was saying that he thought those changes would restore Congress.

And then we did hear, also, from Tom McDonald, who's chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He talked a lot about commonalities, you know, said issues like education, economic development, managing natural resources and dealing with fentanyl are best addressed when people are working together.

Montana’s congressional delegates visited the state Capitol Monday to speak about their individual work in Congress and the work they’d like to see in the statehouse.
The Chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes joined Montana’s federal delegation at the Capitol to address the state’s Legislature and his goals for the future.

Sally Mauk Rob, former Governor Marc Racicot — who, full disclosure, sits on the board of your employer, the Mansfield Center — he was in the news this week when the state Republican Party basicallyexcommunicated him, saying neither he, nor the news media should call him a Republican anymore, since Racicot, in their view, no longer supports the party's platform and some of the party's candidates. It begs the question, doesn't it, Rob, of whether Racicot has changed or the party has changed?

Rob Saldin Yeah, Yeah, it does Sally. You know, everything the Republican state party notes there concerning Racicot's heresy is accurate. He opposed Trump from the beginning, supported Biden in 2020, cut an ad for Monica Tranel and so forth. But it's always been quite clear, I think, that Racicot's decisions were based not on policy or ideology; He is a conservative, at least in the traditional sense of that word, and he was also never one to shy away from partisan hardball, for that matter. He was, after all, the de facto spokesman for the George W. Bush campaign during the Florida recount, the chair of the Republican National Committee. You know what he's objected to in recent years, I think he would be the first to tell you it all traces back to the rather obvious failings of Donald Trump, character and otherwise. The lack of integrity and decency, which is is something that Racicot puts a high premium on. All the lying, the idle cruelty, the coup attempt, things of this sort. And then many members of the Republican Party supported all that, continue to support it, be it tacitly or directly. So, it's understandable to me that Montana Republicans would find Racicot irritating these days. But it's not clear to me that this is worth doing a big witch hunt over. Among other things, that actually has a way of drawing even more attention to Racicot. And just politically, I'm just not sure it's that wise of a move. You know, Racicot, he's been off the scene for a while, but he was wildly popular back when he was governor. He got re-elected to his second term with over 80% of the vote. He carried every single county. And, you know, some of that luster may have come off toward the end with energy deregulation and whatnot, But there's still just a lot of goodwill out there for Racicot. And for many years, there is even chatter about, you know, maybe Racicot will come back and run for something. So I'm just not sure this kind of public repudiation is a good look for Montana Republicans. It strikes me as the kind of thing that will be really satisfying to some of the party elite. But for your average voter out there, I don't think so.

Sally Mauk And Democrats have been suspiciously silent about all this Rob.

Rob Saldin Well, sure. I mean, they're probably delighted to see this going on.

Sally Mauk Holly, a couple of bills that were strongly opposed by labor and by the medical profession were killed this week. One was a "right to work" bill that was killed in a House committee on a bipartisan vote and a bill that would have punished doctors who assisted terminally ill patients with medical aid in dying. That was barely killed in the Senate.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think a lot of these policies people are watching pretty closely this session, given now we have a Republican supermajority, so they've gained seats since last session. And like you said, these policies, both this year and in the past, have failed. Sometimes on pretty close votes, so. But they were definitely ones on the radar. Like you said, the "right to work" bill didn't even get out of committee this year, where last session it made it to the House floor, which is when we saw an enormous amount of opposition and the bill was voted down. That was just such a stark example in 2021 because the building was so empty because of COVID. But this year we saw a ton of opposition again show up when the bill was heard in committee. You could barely walk through the first floor of the building. People were kind of watching from the hallway when that was going on. And then there was a pretty big rally held outside the next day and the bill went down in committee. You know, not a ton of discussion, really. And like you said, it went down on a 12 to 7 vote. All Democrats opposed it along with six Republicans.

Dozens of union leaders and workers flooded the Capitol on Friday to voice their opposition to a so-called “Right to Work” bill.

And then on the physician aid in dying bill, you know, we saw it really narrowly clear a second reading in the Senate, which is when it's debated and they take an initial vote. But then the following day on the third reading, which is where it would pass the chamber, it went down on a 24 to 26 margin. It's a bill that would say that consent can't be used as a defense in the case of a doctor providing medication to a patient that, at the end of their life, uses that medication in a narrow set of circumstances in terminal cases. And we have seen iterations of this bill die in previous sessions for about 15 years now. But I still think it's a win for moderates since it did look like it did have a chance to pass. You know, so those are two things I think moderates can point to so far this session. But we are seeing places where they're not getting great traction. We've seen Democrats actually side with more of the farther right Freedom Caucus Republicans to vote some things down. So, that's something interesting, a dynamic we'll be watching in the next 45 days.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly and Rob, this next week is going to be a blur of votes and debates as lawmakers try to meet the March 3rd deadline for transmitting non-revenue bills from one chamber to the other. And, Rob, this bottleneck always reminds me of the drawback of having a Legislature that only meets for 90 days every two years. They end up with this kind of flurry of rushed activity.

Rob Saldin Yeah, that's right, Sally. I mean, it strikes me as not ideal. You have so much going on. It's very hard for folks like Holly and her team to keep track of it all. It's hard for members of the public to keep track of it all. It really is a situation that works to the benefit of lobbyists and not necessarily the way you'd want to design it for open government.

Sally Mauk Well, the upside is that after transmittal the Legislature takes a few days off. And so we'll look forward to that. Holly and Rob, thank you. I'll talk to you next week.

Holly Michels Thanks, Sally.

Rob Saldin Thanks, Sally.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and 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.

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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