Montana Public Radio

Campaign Beat: Parsing The Senate Debate And Latest Ads

Aug 14, 2020

The first Senate debate scored talking points but not a clear winner. A new ad in the U.S. House race touches all the Montana bases: fishing, shooting and beer. And the candidates for governor talk sales taxes.

Listen now on Campaign Beat with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

Sally Mauk Rob, in the U.S. Senate race between the two Steves both candidates are trying to fundraise off their recent debate, and both are claiming victory. To my mind, there wasn't a clear winner, with both candidates scoring points they wanted to score.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I think that's right Sally. You know, to my eye at least, it wasn't an easy debate to watch just because everyone was Zooming in from their homes. And there were some technical glitches with both the candidates' video, and the sound wasn't quite synched up quite right. Hopefully those issues can be addressed in the future debates. But yeah, I mean, I think that's my takeaway, too. I think both candidates probably walk away from that debate feeling just fine with how it went.

Mauk Clearly Daines wants to paint Bullock as a tool of the Democratic leadership. Here's a typical line of attack he used during the debate.

"If Nancy Pelosi has her way in Washington, D.C., I'll tell you what, your taxes are going to go up. That's why it's so important we have a backstop in the U.S. Senate. We cannot allow more liberals like Steve Bullock to go back to Washington, D.C.".

Mauk But Bullock had a rejoinder and did his best to deflect the criticism.

"Unfortunately Senator, Daines has to run against me, not Nancy Pelosi or anyone else."

Mauk And Bullock, Rob, tried hard to tie Daines to Trump's poor response to the COVID pandemic. You know, they both really got in the diggs they wanted to get in.

'Campaign Beat' is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally, I guess so. That theme of Daines' is one that we see from Republicans all over the country, from the president on down. You know, I didn't think there was much substance to it. It didn't really engage the issues. It's, I think, an attempt to nationalize the election, to take the focus away from the two candidates and away from substantive issues, and to have the election turn on a referendum of the right's favorite hate figures like Pelosi and Schumer and AOC and the liberals and the liberal mob in the coastal elite; Jane Fonda even, and so on. And yet, you know, that might be about the best thing Daines has to run on in this environment. The only trouble, I think, is that Montanans know Bullock. They've elected him statewide three times. His name I.D. is through the roof. So I do wonder whether these attacks that Bullock is someone we should be scared of and is in cahoots with a bunch of scary people; I'm just not totally convinced that that's going to stick. It's kind of the same problem that Republicans are having with Joe Biden, right? People are familiar with Biden and Bullock, and whatever else you may think of them, these aren't people who inspire a whole lot of fear. And it's always harder to do that kind of an attack on figures who are already so well-known and who have the kind of public persona that Bullock and Biden have.

You know, the on the virus, I guess, the thing that stuck out to me was when Denison asked a follow up to Daines about how he thought President Trump had done in handling the virus. And Daines had previously said a bunch of, you know, more or less sensible things about the virus. But then he said what a great job Trump has done in handling it, that he's grateful for Trump's leadership. On the one hand, it's just a little uncomfortable to watch someone have to say those kinds of things. Right? I mean, is it really that difficult to acknowledge that Trump's handling of the virus has been suboptimal? But I guess on the other hand, you know, if you've been riding this horse for so long, the path of least resistance is probably to just keep going and hope for the best.

Mauk Suboptimal may be an understatement. Well, the next debate is in late September, so we'll see if they get to more substantive issues in that debate.

Holly, U.S. House candidate Kathleen Williams has a couple of new ads out. Here's one.

[Williams] "The Washington playbook says, I shouldn't tell you I voted for Reagan when I'm running as a Democrat; that I can't be a proud gun owner and support background checks on gun sales. They say I talk too much about working with people of all political stripes in Helena to reduce taxes. Well, I don't care what Washington thinks. In Montana, we do things our way. And I bet they think I shouldn't have a beer in my ad either. I'm Kathleen Williams and I approve this message."

Mauk And this ad, Holly touches a lot of Montana bases. It shows Williams fishing in a river, shooting clay pigeons and drinking a beer. I think it's clever and sassy and one of the best ads on the air so far, in my opinion.

Holly Michels Yeah, it definitely hits that Montana trinity there. Like you said, I think it's fun and it's positive and we're really just not seeing a whole lot of that with campaign ads. Feels like if you turn on the TV and see them, it's just pretty dark and negative, and honestly, a little depressing. So it's kind of a refreshing break. I think it kind of also follows the same message that you and Rob we're talking about, that Bullock was trying to say in the debate. You know, we hear Republicans and State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who Williams is running against, call Kathleen Williams extreme, Kathleen. And there's a lot of messaging that if she were elected, she would just be a follower of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a lot of those people, as Rob said, Republicans villainize frequently. And in this ad, Williams really directly counters it. She's making an appeal to voters that she'd be an independent voice. She wouldn't follow what the party in Washington is telling her to do. She also points out she worked across the aisle in the state legislature as a Democrat. She was in the minority the entire time she was in Helena. So she had to work with Republicans to get anything passed. She also points out something you really haven't heard much this election season, which is that it's possible to hold two ideas at once, like being a gun owner and supporting background checks for safety. Saying this is just, you know, a nice change of pace. I think it's positive. She's defining herself kind of on her own terms. And what Rob was saying, voters know who Steve Bullock is. I think Williams has run before at a statewide race for House in 2018, but definitely not as well known. So this is kind of her fun way to introduce herself and let people know who she is.

Mauk Rob, in the governor's race, Mike Cooney is still trying to make a sales tax a big issue in that race. And he's now calling for a constitutional amendment to permanently ban a sales tax in Montana. And that's something that voters would have to approve. And Republicans, Rob, wasted no time putting out an ad that shows Cooney himself once asked for a bill draft for a four percent sales tax. Here's part of that ad.

[Narrator] "Montanans already know Mike Cooney supported raising their taxes and fees, almost a billion worth on gas, businesses, cars, land, water and more."

[Cooney clip] People understand that taxes and fees. That's how we pay the bills.

[Narrator] But what Mike Cooney really doesn't want you to know is that he also pushed for a sales tax. Cooney even pushed for legislation to impose a four percent sales tax on hard working Montanans, the maximum allowed under state law."

Mauk Rob, that's true. But Cooney says he only requested a sales tax bill, which he never introduced because he wanted to "research the impact of such a tax." And that doesn't pass my smell test. He didn't need to draft a bill to get that information, for one thing.

Saldin Well, yeah, Sally I. I think it looks pretty bad. So this played out over several months back in 2004 and 2005. And Cooney had a sales tax bill drafted when he was in the Legislature. Now he's claiming that he only had the bill drafted as a way to get a revenue note, which is an analysis from the Department of Revenue. And he wanted to see the implications of a sales tax that was in a Republican bill. But that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Just for starters, he's saying that he's always been against a sales tax. Well, if that's true, why would you request a bill draft for something you're adamantly opposed to? He says that he was just trying to get more information about a Republican bill, but he could have gotten that information from other sources. He could have looked at the revenue note on the Republican bill, for instance, or he could have just requested it without drafting a bill. So it seems pretty odd that you'd decide to go through the laborious process of drafting a bill in an attempt to get that information. But the other oddity here is that the analysis he was seeking typically isn't done until after the bill is introduced. So if you draft a bill and don't introduce it, you don't get the analysis that supposedly motivated the draft in the first place. So that all seems strange. The other explanation here that we could imagine is that Cooney, you know, at the very least, toyed with the idea of a sales tax, but ended up deciding against it for whatever reason. So, you know, look, at the end of the day, he never introduced a sales tax bill. So I suppose he can claim to have never supported a sales tax. But that doesn't really explain why he requested that a sales tax bill be drafted.

Mauk And he had to expect that that's going to show up in an opposition ad as it has.

Holly, lawmakers are due to convene in January for their biennial session. But no one knows yet what convene is going to look like. It's doubtful it's going to look anything like previous sessions with everyone gathered in small hearing rooms, etc. in the Capitol.

Michels Yeah, there was a meeting on this during the last week where lawmakers were kind of discussing options. And it seems like there's no really good options, there's just ones that people dislike less than others. The session starts in January. It's normally the middle of flu season at that point. There's also this very real thing called the "Capitol crud," which is just this pretty disgusting illness. It seems like. Everybody gets at least once during the session. And you're bringing in a bunch people from all over the state, lobbyists from around the country. Like you said, the Capitol itself is not very well set up for social distancing in how a normal session looks. And then there's shared housing situations that you've got, too.

I think another thing, too; we've already seen one fight about public health mandates with the use of masks. Democrats walked out of a -- virtually walked out -- of an interim meeting that was held the day after the governor issued a mask mandate, because Republicans on the committee wouldn't wear masks. So, it also feels like we might be qued up for a little bit of a fight. It seems like at this point, lawmakers are kind of leaning towards some sort of hybrid option, which would be a limited amount of legislators and their staff in the Capitol in Helena. And then some participating from home. Probably public participation would also be done remotely, which can be challenging with just, you know, we've seen some issues with people trying to participate in interim meetings that have been held over platforms by Zoom. And I think a lot about what access for the press is going to look like, and it just seems like a huge challenge. So, you know, I think like anything in this pandemic, it's really hard to predict the future. So who knows what we're going to look like in January. But I think safe to say it's going to be a much different looking Legislature than we would see in a normal year.

Mauk Yeah, that's the only thing we can say for sure, I think.

Well, Holly and Rob, more and more Montana counties are opting to go to vote by mail in November, but now the post office is removing mail collection boxes all over Montana. And Trump seems bent on making it harder to use the federal mail service. And both senators Tester and Daines are asking for an explanation. But I mean, what is going on? This is alarming, I think, to just about anyone who cares about the voting process.

Michels Yeah, we got confirmation yesterday in Missoula they're moving 13 drop-boxes. And then also seeing discussion about drop-boxes is being pulled in Bozeman, in Lewistown, perhaps in Billings, too. I think there's some pretty significant challenges. And like you said, a lot of our bigger counties have already either officially made the decision to vote by mail, or are leaning that way. We've put in a request with the secretary of state to get the plans the counties have to submit if they choose to vote by mail. We haven't gotten a response to that request yet. So we don't have an official type of information about that, but have seen reporting of Missoula, Helena, a lot of bigger counties. Billings indicated they wanted to go that route as well. So wej're going to have a lot of ballots. We saw a pretty darn high turnout, almost, you know, a record number of people voted for a primary in our June election. So I think, you know, it's going to be pretty high demand on the postal service and maybe less capacity in Montana.

Mauk Well, ballots are going out in early October for those who are going to vote by mail. So that's coming right up. That's something we're going to continue to track. That's for sure.

Holly and Rob, thanks. And we'll talk to you again next week.

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.