'Campaign Beat:' Kavanaugh Confirmation, Questionable Campaign Donations And Trump's Popularity

Sep 28, 2018

Sally Mauk: Welcome to Campaign Beat, our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and Veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson.

Chuck, the news of the week, of course, is the Senate vote on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The Judiciary Committee hearing this week was astonishingly partisan and dramatic. And for red-state-Democrats like Jon Tester, this is a tough vote politically. And Tester will vote no, and that is sure, Chuck, to please his base and sure to infuriate Trump's supporters.

Chuck Johnson: Yeah, that's right Sally, and Tester kept his vote under wraps until recently, and he said he would vote against Kavanaugh's nomination for a couple reasons. Concerns about his decisions on dark money, choice, the allegations of sexual assault and others. But yeah, it was a vote that Tester will take a lot of flak for from the Republicans. But would he get their votes anyway? Probably not. It will probably ensure, I would guess, that Donald Trump, Sr., the President, will be out one more time to Montana to blast him for the vote. But it probably will please his supporters and anger his opponents.

SM: And Rob, he might have lost part of his base if he was a yes vote. I could see women who are staunch Democrats deserting Tester if his vote was yes. What do you think?

Rob Saldin: Absolutely. At the very least it would have dampened enthusiasm. You know what stands out to me is, just for the last week or two, it's been very clear that regardless of what happened with the Kavanaugh nomination, that there were going to be a lot of Americans and a lot of Montanans who felt that not only did something happen that they didn't like, but that something happened that was a real moral injustice. And so that's one of the things about this that just makes it so tough. And I think especially tough for someone in the situation of Tester, it doesn't matter how you come down, some people are going to be enraged. And he obviously made his choice and I think it makes sense just politically, but the mood out there, it's volatile, it's unpredictable. This is the kind of thing that the fallout from it is uncertain. The dynamics here in Montana are going to be somewhat different than they are for a lot of the other Democratic senators who come from very blue states. And this is the kind of thing that I'm sure Tester wishes that he didn't have to make a call on at this point, right, just here weeks before the election.

SM: I think Chuck's right that President Trump will likely make another visit to Montana just to make a point about that particular vote. But we'll see.

Chuck, Donald Trump, Jr., campaigned for Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale who is challenging Tester and that was in Bozeman this past week, and now Vice President Mike Pence will do the same, also in Bozeman this coming week. Why is everybody going to Bozeman?

CJ: Gallatin County is one of Montana's most interesting counties electorally. It used to be a solid Republican county with a few Democratic legislators. Nowadays it's moving more toward the Democratic side on certain issues. I believe it was a county that Trump did not carry. It's a strange county within the city limits of Bozeman—solid Democrat—within the sprawling area outside the city limits, its solid Republican. And it's a wealthy county. It's an interesting county. It's a county, at least in statewide votes, is starting to go more and more Democratic. So I think that's a real interesting one for both sides.

SM: Here's Donald Trump, Jr.’s, main message to those who attended the rally.

Donald Trump, Jr.: You have to realize that Donald Trump is on the ticket in six weeks. I want to keep winning for another six years.

SM: I guess he thinks Donald Trump is spelled Matt Rosendale, Chuck, because that's actually who's on the ticket, of course.

CJ: Yeah, it's Rosendale and, you know, Trump is certainly promoted Rosendale when he's been here, the elder Trump, but he's right. It really is a vote, in a lot of ways, on a referendum on Trump as well as a referendum on Tester.

SM: Meanwhile, a PAC known as Majority Forward, which supports Senator Tester, has this new ad.

Narrator: When east coast developer Matt Rosendale moved from Maryland to Montana, he bought a multi-million dollar trophy ranch. Now Maryland Matt likes to dress up and call himself a rancher. But Rosendale doesn't own a single head of cattle. Not one. Worse, he bought more land so he could turn it into a suburban housing development. Rosendale may not be a rancher, but he sure is full of bull. Matt Rosendale: All hat, no cattle. Majority Forward is responsible for the content of this advertising.

SM: In the visuals in this ad, Chuck, show a person impersonating Rosendale in ill-fitting white cowboy boots, trying to wrangle a hay bale and rope a fence post, and then stepping in a pile of manure. It's funny and it hammers the theme the Tester campaign has been repeating over and over: That Rosendale is not a real rancher.

CJ: Yeah, that he's a Maryland guy, not a Montana guy and it does present those pretty well. The only question I have is, either other groups or Tester have been using the same version of the ad that he's essentially a dude rancher living in Montana, who has a big ranch, and is not connected to the land like Tester is. Those ads have been running for months now, whether they still work, I don't know. But it's a common theme the Democrats and Tester are using against him.

SM: So Rob, Rosendale is being criticized lately for taking $10,000 from a donor to help his 2016 campaign for State Auditor. Then days after taking office *, giving the donor and his family a favorable settlement in a case that was before the Auditor's office. And this has at least, I think, the appearance of a quid pro quo.

RS: Right, it does and it looks bad, but I guess I do find myself somewhat less scandalized by this than some. And that's not necessarily because it's hard to connect the dots here, it's not, but because it's common. The reality is, is that one of the main reasons for making political donations in the first place is for access. Obviously some people are true believers and make contributions for other less obviously self-interested reasons.

But it's not uncommon at all that donors fork over money with the hope and the expectation that it will give them access to elected officials after the campaign. And this is why you often see some donors give money to both candidates. It's a way of hedging your bets and ensuring that you have access no matter who is in power. Now again, of course, your average activist or engaged citizen doesn't approach things with this mindset, but if you're in, say, the business world, it's rather standard practice to make donations. It serves as something like an insurance policy. So that is, if we get into trouble at some point in the future, we can rest easy because we've got friends in high places who will be in a position to help us, right? So whether we like it or not this kind of thing is all fairly typical.

SM: It may be typical but it seems like this was pretty blatant in that it happened within a few days of taking office that he had this favorable settlement with the donor.

RS: Right. So that's the one thing that does make this particular situation a little different is that these folks were already in trouble, right? It's not like they were just trying to gain access for the future if things went wrong; they were already in a bad situation. So it raises suspicion that there's some kind of quid pro quo here. You know I give you a bunch of money and in return you make my problem go away. Now, we should say there is absolutely no smoking gun here and I think it's unlikely that one will turn up. And based on what we know now, there's nothing illegal. But definitely doesn't look good, and just politically I think it does somewhat undercut Rosendale’s effort to cast himself as the commonsense straight shooter against Tester, the corrupt swamp creature.

SM: The voters think they're all swamp creatures. That’s the other thing that they're both fighting. Chuck, Rosendale has a new ad filmed at his ranch in Glendive that tries to answer the question of his Montana authenticity. It's a very folksy ad, it features him. And I think it's one of the most effective ones he's put out there, makes him look pretty Montana

CJ: I'd agree, Sally. It shows him standing near a relatively modest home, it's not a McMansion or anything, just a white house, nothing fancy. And you know after all, he has lived in Glendive about 20 years. He was that area's choice in the Montana House race a time or two, in the Montana Senate, and then statewide elected in 2016 to State Auditor, so he's not, you know, right off the turnip truck from Maryland. He's been here for 20 years, a lot more than a lot of people that live in Montana.

SM: There's a new poll out by Gravis Marketing that shows Tester up by four points over Rosendale. And in the House race, Kathleen Williams is down by nine points to Greg Gianforte. And it seems to me, Chuck and Rob, that there is no surprise that the incumbents are leading. What do you guys think?

CJ: You know the old rule in politics is it's always tough to beat an incumbent. And we haven't seen recent campaign finance reports in the House race, but I always feel it's incumbents races to lose. And the interesting twist in the House race, the same pollsters did a poll in June, that found Kathleen Williams up by six points. So if these polls are accurate, she's dropped 15 points over the summer. I don't know if that's accurate or not, I haven't seen any other polls since this poll was done in June in the House race. There’s been several polls on the Senate race so you know we'll be seeing more polls in the coming weeks and I think we'll have a better sense about the accuracy of this poll.

SM: The Williams people are putting out the spin on this, that she's within single digits, Rob, that's the positive way to look at it.

RS: Yeah. I mean the other way of looking at it is that it's outside the margin of error. And that's a contrast with the Senate poll. Tester is up four and there has been more polling on the Senate side. But even this one with him up four, that's still well within the margin of error. I think the more polls that we see with Tester ahead does give us maybe a little bit more confidence that he does have a slight edge. But what's more clear than that is that it's way too close to call. Rosendale is absolutely within striking distance based on the polling data we've seen so far and he could absolutely win this thing.

SM: Well, the same poll shows President Trump with a 56 percent job approval rating in Montana. In June, it was 50 percent. So the president's job approval rating in Montana is actually going up and that has to have the Democrats running for Congress worried.

CJ: Well, I would think so. Trump has 56 percent job approval. It's interesting, but when he won the election here in 2016, he had 56 percent of the vote. I mean, there’s not a direct correlation but what it says to me is he's, you know, he's as popular in Montana now as he was when he got elected. And that has to have Democrats kind of fretting a little bit; around the country, in a lot of states, his support has gone down. Now, it's important to remember, though, that he's been here twice, son's been here, the vice president's coming next week. So they're really putting an effort to try to promote Trump in Montana and help Rosendale along the way.

SM: We're not seeing prominent Democrats come to Montana to campaign for Tester or Williams, which is kind of interesting, Rob.

RS: Interesting but not surprising. I'm not sure you want the likes of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi…

SM: Or even Barack Obama.

RS: …even, probably, Barack Obama. So yeah I think that gives you just another sense that Montana has been trending more in the Republican-red direction, especially under President Trump. People from the administration are eagerly welcomed by the Republican candidates, and Democratic candidates I think prefer to run on their own name

SM: Try to keep it as local as possible.

This has been a fascinating week politically, and is likely to get even more fascinating as we get closer to Election Day. And we'll be around to talk about it next week.

You've been listening to Campaign Beat, our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Talk to you next week guys.

Correction: The settlement between the campaign donor and the auditor's office was reached several months after Mr. Rosendale took office - not within a few days as stated. There was an initial meeting between Mr. Rosendale and the donor about the case soon after he took office in January but the settlement was not reached until December.