Montana Public Radio

Campaign Beat: Do Debates Matter? Tele-Town Halls, Thin Skinned Politicians

Jan 31, 2020

The three Democratic candidates for governor hold their first debate soon; Gov. Bullock says no to a Senate run and maybe to a Cabinet position; Congressman Gianforte still won’t hold an in-person town hall; and how public officials' thin skins threaten democracy.

Sally Mauk: Rob, the three Democratic primary candidates for Governor, Mike Cooney, Whitney Williams and Casey Schreiner are gonna hold their first debate on February 12th in Billings. I, for one, look forward to that.

Rob Saldin: Yep, so do I. The three of us are gonna be glued to these debates as we always are. You know, the shocking reality, though, is that most people don't watch these things. You know, I think a lot of those who do actually are probably already in the can for a particular candidate. They follow this stuff a lot more than the average person. They made up their minds about who they're going to support a long time ago. But that said, I do think these debates are really important. And it's what we have. It's one of the few occasions that these candidates will get to speak to a statewide audience. And even for people who don't actually watch the debate, there are other ways that this stuff kind of seeps in. You know, I mean, Holly, I'm sure you or someone from Lee papers will be there and doing a story and Corin [Cates-Carney] will have a piece. And so even if you aren't tuning in from bell to bell, the information from these debates does get filed away in a lot of voters' minds.

Mauk: Cooney, of course, is the most well known of the three candidates because he's lieutenant governor and has been for a while. But for Whitney Williams and Casey Schreiner, I think this is a real opportunity for the lesser known candidates, these debates, to get their name out there and get their policies out there.

Campaign Beat

Saldin: Yeah Sally, I mean, I think these debates are always more important for the challengers, the less well-known candidates. And I think you probably would say that Mike Cooney has a little bit of an edge going into this; although, you know, Whitney Williams, as we discussed a week or two ago, had that great first fundraising report. Not exactly a surprise, but she certainly needed it. And I think she and Schreiner more than Cooney need solid debate performances. They both just have less margin for error than Cooney. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if the two of them come out a little bit more aggressive; Cooney playing a little bit more prevent defense, just trying not to make some mistake that gets a lot of media attention from Williams.

You know, I wouldn't be surprised if she tries to make a little bit of a electability argument, right. People know Cooney, especially in Democratic circles. They like him. He's a nice guy. But there's a little bit of this question you hear sometimes about whether he has that killer instinct. If this thing turns into a, you know, who have you shaken hands with more times kind of thing? You know, Cooney wins. But if Williams can, or Schreiner, for that matter, if they can make the argument that they'd be tougher for whoever wins the Republican primary, that might help them stick out a little bit.

Mauk: That debate is going to be live streamed by the Billings Gazette and it takes place on February 12th. And people can watch it on Facebook or I think on the Billings Gazette homepage.

Holly, two of the three Republican candidates for governor of now pick their running mates. And this week, Attorney General Tim Fox picked former Bozeman state legislator Jon Knokey to run as his lieutenant governor.

Holly Michels Yeah. Knokey is an interesting pick. He's pretty well known in the Bozeman area after, like he said, serving a term in the state Legislature. He also played quarterback for Montana State University, which tends to get you a lot of attention in Montana. Fox said he picked Knokey because they share a lot of the same values. And at that press conference this last week, he really played up Knokey's experience in business. Knokey's the manager of corporate strategy for John Deere, and that adds a little bit of a private sector flavor to the ticket versus just Fox alone who spent the last decade and change running for or serving in elected office.

Knokey's also interesting; he unseated a Democratic incumbent in 2016 in House District 65 in Bozeman in a really close race. So that sort of sure is something that Fox was looking at when he selected him. Knokey talked a little bit about his legislative background at that press conference. He served on the Appropriations Committee in his term in the session, so he's got an understanding of the state budget, but he spent a lot more of his time really trying to hammer home to the supporters in the media who were there that he's trying to say he and Fox are really the most electable in the general election out of the Republicans that are in this primary.

Mauk Here's how Knokey characterized the Fox candidacy.

"We must elect the Republican that can win in November. Right?"

And that is the central message of this Republican ticket isn't Holly, that Greg Gianforte is too extreme and too polarizing to beat a Democrat in November?

Michels It is. No Republican, I think, in this race is really eager to call themselves a moderate. But that's the line that Fox and Knokey are trying to cure with the electability argument. You definitely heard both Fox and Knokey use the word conservative as much as they could to describe themselves in speeches at that press conference. And they rattled off some rankings that Gianforte has gotten from conservative think tanks that sort of look at congressmen and assign them a greater percentage based on if they vote with their values. Those aren't the best way to gauge candidates, but it is something you see people bring up a lot in elections. And Fox is really trying to talk about things he's done as an attorney general that show he's a strong conservative.

But if you also looked around in the room at some of the supporters who were there, you kind of get an idea of what's going on. That's the members from the state Legislature are part of this "solutions caucus" group, which holds a lot of power. And they've found a lot of support working with Democrats to pass things like Medicaid expansion. That caucus has also really shied away from the label moderate, trying even less in 2019 session to make sure everybody call them the "solutions" or "conservative solutions caucus." But that moderate label is still swirling around, and Fox and Knokey are trying to take that and sort of rebrand it by calling themselves these uniters who have broad appeal, which they're saying is best for the general election.

Mauk Rob, in a recent meeting with the Missoulian newspaper editorial board, Governor Steve Bullock took some jabs at Senator Steve Daines. He criticized Daines' support of tax cuts for the wealthy and his opposition to Obamacare, among other things. He sounds like someone who might want to run against Daines, but he still says it will not be Steve Bullock.

Saldin I know he keeps teasing the Democratic voters on this. He sure does sound like a candidate. And a lot of times I think you'd see someone in his position, a term-limited governor who is not running for another office, kind of try to stay above the fray on this kind of stuff. The attacks on Daines, it absolutely sounds like something that you'd see from a candidate. This is also not new from Bullock, right? He's been saying things like this for a number of weeks. But I think clearly he reiterated at the end of that, again, that he was absolutely not going to be a candidate. And this point, it would be bizarre if he did change his mind. He said that so many times and been so adamant and left really no wiggle room for himself. So I think Democrats have to move on and assume they're going to have to have another nominee.

Mauk He did say would be open to discussing a cabinet position, though, if a Democrat wins the presidency in November.

Saldin Sure. I mean, I think that's probably what he's hoping for if he stays in public life. Could also go off into the private sector and make a lot of money. But you could absolutely imagine him at Interior or Agriculture or maybe even the A.G. spot.

Mauk: Holly, congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte held another telephone town hall this week. And I think "town hall" is a misnomer since there's no hall, it's just a call-in phone line. And this is the new normal for Gianforte and for Steve Daines to hold these tele-town halls. And they both have been roundly criticized, by Democrats mostly, for not being willing to hold in-person public meetings with any Montanans, and any reporter, for that matter, who wants to show up.

Michels: So in 2017, during the legislative session, it was right after the 2016 presidential election. Daines was scheduled to address the Legislature. And that day a really large group of people sort of following the wave of the women's march that we saw at the Capitol just a bit before, showed up pretty frustrated that Daines hadn't held town hall in-person meetings. And were trying to get time with him or demand him that day. And Daines actually ended up rescheduling his address to the Legislature. Some saw kind of a move to avoid that interaction with that group. And we have seen, like you said, since taking office, both Daines and Gianforte have chosen to have their sort of main, most publicized outreach with voters or with constituents over the phone instead of in person. We still see Democrat, Senator Jon Tester, on the other hand, hold in-person town hall several times a year around the state. I've covered a lot of those. And it does feel a lot different than those phone calls, which I also listen in on. You know the doors open, anybody can come and go. Typically, the senator, and this is the same for both the phone and in-person town halls, talks a little bit about what they've been up to in D.C. for about 10 or 15 minutes and then opens it up to questions. But when you've got an in-person town hall like Tester does, you see the microphone passed around. You see everyone who wants to has a chance to ask a question. When it's done on the phone, you you don't really know how that process works. You press, I think, like star 3 to get in the queue, but I don't know if there's any screening done on that.

Mauk: Rob, this week also saw a much publicized interview between NPR host Mary Louise Kelly and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, where he threw a major fit because she asked him questions he didn't like. And then he retaliated by bumping another NPR reporter from his latest trip overseas. And to me, these incidents correlate with Daines and Gianforte, trying to avoid or dodge what could be uncomfortable questions from the press or the public. And as a journalist, this strikes me as an ever more serious erosion of accountability by public officials. I take it personally, I have to say.

Saldin: Right. We could cite other examples, too. Look, I have a little bit of sympathy for Daines and Gianforte when it comes to public town halls, because there have been a number of high profile incidents of semi-orchestrated town halls in which basically people show up with an agenda to try to embarrass the member of Congress and create a big media event that makes them look really bad. And so you can understand why people are not eager to get into that situation. That said, I mean, for all the reasons you say Holly, I mean, it does take them away from their constituents, right? These people that they are supposed to be representing and staying in touch with. And Sally, I think you're right, there is an overlap in our current media environment. We can all kind of create our own little media echo chambers. You worry that it's now possible for a lot of these politicians to essentially do an end run around any type of media that isn't going to just fawn over them and report 100 percent favorably. And that's a concern for our democracy, obviously.

Michels: Yeah, I mean, I think in Montana, I think we still have a pretty special landscape where we do have pretty good access to our elected officials, but it takes a push on the part of the media to not just get complacent, and actually demand that time.

I'd actually be interested, Sally to hear someone from your longevity what access was like to state level officials? I started this job in 2015 and I've heard you used to be able to just walk into the governor's office and ask a question. And now there's a communications staff that you go to and there's still that access, but I've heard it used to be pretty different in Montana.

Mauk: Yeah, it was so different. It's really changed a ton. Every reporter I know had the personal cell phone number of the governor and could call them up and usually get a response within a few hours at most. And now it's not like that. And you could get an interview with any politician you wanted, no matter what their party, and they would always get back to you. And that is not the case now in some sense. Social media has changed that, of course. They can get their message out. They don't need us to get their message out. But also, I think the tenor of interviews has changed. It's become more combative if you ask a question that they're uncomfortable about. It's likely they will berate you for asking. And I've been berated by more than one politician, in my career, of both parties for sure. But I think that's way more common now, making the reporter feel like you've done something you shouldn't have done when in fact you've done your job.

Michels: I think, too, something I've noticed is, and we saw this with the Mary Louise Kelly thing, where she explained, you know, I did clear with your staff that I was going to be asking about Ukraine. And that's something I noticed; communications staff want your questions in advance or even just topics. And if you ask something that's outside of that area, which is something that's part of our jobs as journalists. We have access to an elected official to ask them things we need to know to report back to our readers. And that's something I've noticed before, is that there's a little more hostility sometimes when you ask things that are relevant to, you know, current situations, but maybe you weren't cleared before or something like that.

Mauk: I've been asked many times for questions in advance, and I've never given my questions in advance. I might give the topic, but I won't give the questions ever.

Michels: Yeah, topics can be helpful if you're talking about something that they might not be well versed on off the top of their head. You should, if you're an elected official, you're expected to have a depth of knowledge on a lot of things. Yeah, questions in advance is not great.

Mauk: Well, it's a worrisome trend, to say the least. We will reconvene next week. Holly, Rob. Until then, enjoy the balmy weekend.

This is Campaign Beat, a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio featuring University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin, Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and host Sally Mauk. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.