Montana's House candidates have their first debate. Ads in that race try to paint the other as the "outsider." The battle to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg's court seat could impact Montana's Senate race. Health care and science dominate the race for governor. And marijuana returns to the ballot.
Listen now on Campaign Beat with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.
Sally Mauk Rob, the two candidates for the U.S. House, Democrat Kathleen Williams and Republican Matt Rosendale, had their first debate this week. And I think the Republican candidate was clearly the aggressor in that debate.
Rob Saldin Yeah. You know, Sally, just on the performative delivery aspect of the debate. I agree. I think Rosendale had the better night. He projected confidence and seemed at ease on the debate stage.
And Williams just wasn't quite as smooth and crisp in her delivery, although, you know, I do think that she was able to get her basic points across.
Mauk The COVID pandemic, of course, came up in that debate, Rob, and Rosendale practically gushed about President Trump's handling of the pandemic. Here's what he said.
[Matt Rosendale]: "And he saved thousands and thousands of lives - that has been proven."
Mauk But I haven't seen that proof, Rob, that he mentions.
Saldin Right, right. I mean, it's just ridiculous. By any reasonable standard, Trump's handling of the pandemic has been very poor. But for Rosendale, like Steve Daines, the guiding principle, the North Star is that Trump is always correct, and that does have a constituency.
Mauk The Affordable Care Act came up often in the debate, and here's an exchange that was initiated by Williams.
[Kathleen Williams]: "Your position has been to repeal the ACA, correct?"
[Matt Rosendale]: "To wipe the slate clean and begin again ..."
[Kathleen Williams]: "To repeal the ACA."
[Matt Rosendale]: "... and I have built a framework that will replace it."
[Kathleen Williams]: "Ok, so that's a yes."
Mauk And Rob, repeal of the ACA is a central issue, not just in this race, but in races across the country.
Saldin For sure, and it's a good one for Democrats. You know, I thought Williams had her best moments - and Rosendale was on the defensive - when it came to health care.
And the reality is, is that Republicans have spent a decade trying to repeal Obamacare, but have failed to identify a viable replacement, and in recent years, they've seemingly abandoned any attempt to even make it look like they're trying to find a viable replacement.
So this is good terrain for Kathleen Williams, and I think she'd be very happy if this continues to be a prominent feature in this campaign.
Mauk Well Holly, both candidates in the House race have ads running - often on television - trying to frame their opponent. Here's one of the latest from the Rosendale campaign.
[Rosendale ad]: "The real Kathleen Williams? A radical activist and liberal from San Francisco. Kathleen Williams backs gun control, and says she's proud to earn an F from the NRA."
"And while businesses are looted and destroyed, the Williams coalition pushes to defund the police. Defunding police, disarming you. Kathleen Williams and Nancy Pelosi will bring their San Francisco roots, riots and record to Montana."
"The real Kathleen Williams? Dangerously liberal."
Mauk But where's San Francisco, Holly?
Holly Michels I think this ad does a lot of what we talked about before in this race, which is making it more about national issues then Montana ones.
You know, saying that even though Williams is running portraying herself as a moderate, that's just a veneer she'd drop if elected. You know, calls her this radical-activist liberal, criticizes her - like you said - from being born in San Francisco, though, you know her opponent Rosendale was also not born in Montana, and moved here in 2002.
But the connotation the ad's going for is that Williams would be somehow tied to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who represents California in Congress.
Williams did respond to this jab from Rosendale, pointing out she was born in San Francisco at an Army hospital because that's where her father was serving in the military at the time.
This ad also shows video - again, not from Montana - of protests going on around the country calling for policing reform. It says that Williams pushes to defund the police, but in the debate you and Rob just talked about, Williams very clearly said that she does not support defunding the police.
This is an argument Republicans up and down the ballot in Montana are making this year. Their Democratic opponents are pretty clear about their stances when asked about it, but haven't been really proactive in articulating where they stand before. I think probably because Democrats and independent voters are sort of across the spectrum with different opinions about the right path here.
I think we see this ad does try to stir up this fear of this idea of extreme liberals, but like a lot of political ads, it takes some liberties in doing so.
Mauk A new Williams ad shows an anonymous fella, presumably meant to infer Rosendale, trying to fit into some cowboy duds that are too tight for him. Here's that ad:
[Williams ad]: "Some things just don't fit, like my millionaire opponent in Montana."
He's pushed an agenda to help land developers - like himself - and he took thousands from the insurance industry and would let them raise our premiums and deny coverage for preexisting conditions."
"Me? I've worked with both parties to actually improve health care and protect public lands. And I don't take corporate PAC money. I'll always put Montana first."
Mauk And it's interesting, Holly, that both candidates are trying to paint the other as an "outsider."
Michels Yeah, this ad, and you know, I think it lands pretty well with voters. I think you're right that they're trying to kind of do the same thing, working to send the message in this ad that Rosendale doesn't fit in here, that he's not one of us, but takes a much different tone, much more lighthearted, like some of the ads we've seen from Williams this cycle.
You know, its got this imagery of the guy, like you said, meant to be Rosendale putting on this cowboy getup - a Western shirt that doesn't quite fit, boots with the tags still on and, of course, that big hat. And that is an outfit we see a lot during campaign season.
You know, it kind of made me think, too, about U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's 2018 campaign against Rosendale. Well, there's a lot of criticism for Rosendale calling himself a rancher for owning a ranch, but not being the one who ran cattle on it. So, you know, kind of some callbacks to that, but I think, you know, just another ad from Williams that is a lot different tone than what we've seen on TV, kind of less negative than what's out there.
Mauk Rob, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week and Senate Republican efforts to rush through confirmation of her successor before the election - that's added another wrinkle into the Montana Senate race. Or has it?
I mean, the makeup of the court is going to change no matter the outcome of the election. So what do you think? Will this fire up the Democratic base, or be a wash for both parties, or maybe fire up the Republican base mostly?
Saldin You know, one thing to start with maybe is that Daines does absolutely look like a total hypocrite on this one, given what he claimed was a very principled stand four years ago for the Scalia vacancy, and now he's in a very different spot. So that's not great for Daines.
Mauk Doesn't hypocrisy work on both sides, though, since Democrats at the time in 2016 wanted a Supreme Court justice approved during an election year?
Saldin Yeah, possibly, except Republicans carried the day on that one on the basis of that principled stand and now they've abandoned that. So, I mean, I think that definitely cuts a little bit in the favor of Democrats.
But the broader politics of it, I agree, are far less certain. And it does depend to some extent on how this actually plays out. A lot of Democrats, I think, don't fully appreciate how central the court is for conservatives.
Remaking the court has been a decades long project on the right, and while Democrats are justifiably upset about aspects of how this latest episode is playing out, Sally, you're right, conservatives have their own list of atrocities on this stuff, dating back to Roe and Robert Bork and so on. And so typically the court has had more of a galvanizing effect on the right.
Democrats oftentimes overplay their hand on this stuff, and it's entirely possible that they will do that again. That said, Ginsburg being replaced by a Trump appointee, that, as you suggest, it's a huge shift, major implications, and we are definitely seeing a lot of mobilization on the left this time - you know, some crazy fundraising numbers and so on.
But I guess my question is, does that actually trickle down to us here in Montana? You know, this is still a culturally conservative state so I would not be surprised if tradition holds on this one and Republicans and Steve Daines get a little boost out of this.
Mauk Well, we'll continue to follow that for sure, and Holly, in the governor's race, Democrat Mike Cooney hopes that potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act will fire up his supporters.
Michels Yeah, we saw Cooney hold a press conference this week past highlighting this. You know, before the opening on the Supreme Court, Cooney had called for legislation in Montana that would create state level protections for people with preexisting conditions. He's also highlighting Medicaid expansion, which is allowed for under the ACA, pointing out if the ACA were to fall, that would affect around 86,000 Montanans who have coverage through that as well as, you know, put rural hospitals at risk. And there's a lot of jobs and money that had been created from expansion, too.
It also gives Cooney an opening - like you guys were talking about in other races - you know, to say that Gianforte, his opponent, has called for the repeal and replacement of the ACA. So, you know, I think that's just going to take a heightened part of this race.
Like you pointed out, Sally, the outcome of this ACA case before the Supreme Court - they hear it the week after the election - that won't really be changed by the election, but could fire up some of Cooney's supporters.
Mauk The Huffington Post, Holly, published an article this week highlighting what it calls Greg Gianforte's "anti-science" beliefs, pointing out, for example, his support of a Glendive museum that maintains humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time, and that he doesn't believe in evolution, among other things.
These are not issues Gianforte likes to be asked about - I speak from experience - but I'm not sure they're going to affect his campaign all that much.
Michels Yeah, I think a lot of this story is pulling from things the Montana media's already reported, like you point out, your 2017 interview with Gianforte. And this piece has gotten a lot of attention on Twitter and political spheres, but I don't know how much it resonates with people who aren't as engaged politically.
It talks about Gianforte giving almost $300,000 to this Glendive museum that supports this biblical version of history. It runs through less-than-clear answers he's given on climate change, but I don't think it's anything new that Republicans in elected office or running for office don't openly or aggressively acknowledge climate change.
It also talks about Gianforte donating to state legislative candidates who hold anti-vaccine views. I'm pretty sure, you know, to anyone who watched the 2019 legislative session, they wouldn't be shocked to learn there are Republican lawmakers in Montana who really aggressively oppose mandatory vaccinations.
I think some of the points this article raises Democrats used effectively against Gianforte in 2016, but I think voters kind of know who he is more now than four years ago. You know, we elected him to Congress twice, so people are pretty aware of what Gianforte is about.
I am kind of curious; this piece gets into comments Gianforte made about herd immunity and the coronavirus. I wonder if that might influence voters a little more this year.
We've seen Republicans hold campaign rallies and events around Montana with pretty minimal adherence to social distancing guidelines or wearing masks. Gianforte himself had to be tested for the virus after one of those events, which he didn't attend but his wife and her running mate did. And I think there's some real frustration in Montana for candidates not adhering to these social distancing and other precautions, so I wonder if that may have a little more sticking power than some of the other issues raised in that piece.
Mauk The evolution of the pandemic is definitely still a wildcard in this election season.
Rob, there are two initiatives on the ballot that would legalize marijuana use for anyone over 21 in Montana, and there also would be a 20% tax, which would likely bring in a ton of money to the state. Supporter Dave Lewis thinks that would be great.
[Dave Lewis]: "And the more I read about it, the more I thought, 'My goodness, this is a great opportunity.'"
Mauk But opponents like Steve Zabawa think it is a gateway drug and a bad idea.
[Steve Zabawa]: "My point is that I haven't seen anything come good out of smoking marijuana, personally, you know, other than a high and be stoned and get munchies."
Mauk Voters will decide if they want to get the munchies, Rob, and I'm guessing they will.
Saldin Yeah, well, you know, we're flying a little blind on this one in terms of polling data, but yeah, I would be a little surprised if these don't pass.
You know, over the last decade or so, Montana's lurched back and forth on this, but at this point, medical marijuana has been around for a long time and I just don't think it's a source of much controversy anymore. And momentum on the national scale is clearly on the side of loosening restrictions, and many states have already legalized recreational.
And of course, Montana taking the next step to recreational marijuana would be consistent with the state's libertarian tendencies.
Mauk Well, we have a bunch of debates coming up and we'll have a lot more to talk about next week. Rob and Holly, thanks.
Campaign Beat is a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio. Campaign Beat features University of Montana political science professor and Mansfield Center fellow Rob Saldin, and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and host Sally Mauk.
Montana’s 2020 election will be among the most contentious and closely watched in the country. The neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race could swing control of the “world’s most deliberative body.” The governor’s race, which Republicans haven’t controlled since 2004, is likely to be just as hard-fought, with a two-term Democrat leaving office in a state that voted for Donald Trump by 20 points the last election.
But beneath the headlines, deeper issues are at play. Learn more about them with Shared State, a new series from Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio about the hidden values driving Montana’s 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.
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