Montana Public Radio

Campaign Beat: Record Turnout, Tightening Races And Dirty Tricks

Oct 30, 2020

Voter turnout in Montana could break an all-time record. A new poll shows the governor's race tightening. New ads in that race look to make closing arguments. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie is the victim of a Cooney campaign dirty trick. Senator Daines brings Cruz, Rubio and Don Jr. into the state for some last minute campaigning. And we may not know who won the top races until the day after election night.

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

Sally Mauk Holly, Tuesday is Election Day. Hurray! But, a majority of Montanans have already voted and the final tally of voters, it looks like we're headed into record territory, no question.

Holly Michels I think you are right. I was looking as of Friday morning, more than 63% of registered voters had already returned their ballots. That's more than 471,500 people who've already voted. That puts turnout this year at 91% of the 2016 election. And that was the most people we'd ever seen vote in Montana prior to this year. So, I think we're pretty well set to break that number. I also think, you know, turnout that year, in '16, was 74%. I think, you know, if we're not going to have the highest turnout ever, which I think is pretty likely for sure, we're going to be right up there with the top highest. There's already two counties in Montana that have had more people vote this year than in 2016. I think obviously there's really high interest in this election, which drives really high turnout. And then we also have 45 counties in this state holding the election mostly by mail, which really helps with that turnout too. I think, you know, those envelopes for return ballots coming pre-stamped as something election worker said the June primary played a pretty big role in really high turnout for that election, too.

Important things for people who are listening this to know, if you have a ballot that you haven't returned yet, it is too late to put that ballot back in the mail. You need to drop it off at a location within your county. Ballots have to be received by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, which is November 3rd. It's also not too late to register to vote. If you have questions about that, where to drop your ballot, how to register, you can go to the secretary of state's website. There's a "my voter" page. You can also check there to see the status of a ballot you've returned to see if it's been received and accepted. And, they'd encourage people to do that as soon as possible because with the high turnout we're talking about, elections workers are going to be really busy. So, the earlier people can get that done, the better.

Sally Mauk That's right. If you want to avoid a long line on Election Day, get your ballots in as soon as you can. And, as Holly said just now, be sure to hand them in in person at this point.

Rob, new polls continue to show Montana's races for House and Senate and governor remain close. But, a poll from MSU Billings is the only one I've seen so far that shows Mike Cooney exactly even with Greg Gianforte. As far as I know, is the first one not showing Gianforte ahead. That has to be encouraging to Cooney.

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

Rob Saldin Yeah, that's right, Sally. We do have some final data points trickling in here. I'd say overall, these final polls look a little bit more encouraging for Democrats relative to where they were, say, a few weeks ago than they do for Republicans. Although, you know, obviously everything is still within the margin of error. You know, as for that governor result in the MSU Billings poll, yeah, showed a tie. That's the first time we've seen it without Gianforte up. You know, we talked about this a little bit last week, but there are arguably some indications that that governor's race has tightened a little bit. Of the big three races, of course, that's the one that's, for most of the campaign, looked most comfortable for Republicans. I'm still a little bit skeptical that this late push is going to be enough for Cooney unless we have one of those big national wave elections like 1980 or '94, 2006. Under those kinds of conditions -- and that's certainly a plausible scenario for next week -- under those conditions, that could maybe be enough to drag Cooney across the finish line in what would be a real come-from-behind upset.

Sally Mauk Holly, there are new ads out in that race for governor. And here's one from the Cooney campaign.

[Narrator]: A leader with a cool head, steady hand and impeccable record of service. That's Mike Cooney. Expanded affordable health care to nearly 100,000 Montanans. And Cooney opened up a quarter million acres of public lands. In a side by side comparison of their records, accomplishments, character and vision for Montana, Mike Cooney, ahead of Greg Gianforte, on all counts.

[Cooney]: I'm Mike Cooney, and we'll move Montana forward together.

Sally Mauk This ad, Holly is kind of a highlights reel of Cooney's campaign's central themes. And it emphasizes character, which I find interesting.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think this is making all the closing arguments that Cooney's probably strongest on: access to public lands, expansion of Medicaid in Montana. It's also an ad that's really telling voters why Cooney's the best choice, and not spending a bunch of space giving his opponent airtime. They're also trying to make positives, I think, out of some of what Gianforte's gone after Cooney for this election. You've seen all these ads criticizing Cooney as this bureaucrat who spent 44 years in state government. Here, we're seeing it framed, pulling quotes from newspaper endorsements, as you know, impeccable record of service, saying Cooney would be a steady hand. Which is probably a smart way for them to flip that argument. I also think, like you pointed out, the cool head and the character references are subtle or, maybe not all that subtle, dig at Gianforte. We talked about this, he assaulted a reporter on the eve of his 2017 election to the U.S. House. I think that's what they're trying to remind people of there. So, I think as far as closing arguments go, this seems like a nice, clean and pretty simple message from Cooney.

Sally Mauk The Republican Governors Association PAC also has a new ad out, and this one attacks Cooney. Here's that ad.

[Man]: You know what I need?

[Woman]: What's that?

[Man]: A dishonest, tax raising, career politician like Mike Cooney. Cooney broke the law and made more than a million off taxpayers. Plus, I need my taxes raised.

[Woman]: You really need your coffee. Better?

[Man]: Yeah. On second thought, I'll pass on the whole Mike Cooney thing.

Sally Mauk And this ad features a couple sitting on a couch having their morning coffee. And it's obviously meant to be satirical, Holly. I'm not sure it works. What do you think?

Holly Michels Yeah, it's kind of a weird ad. I think it is playing up something that Gianforte's campaign and the Republican Governors Association have hammered on through this election. Cooney got hit with a campaign finance violation, ethics violation. Both of which, Cooney's campaign have tried to say were minor. But they happened. He was fined the maximum in one case and Republicans really latched on to that as a place to attack him.

I think on raising taxes, we've talked about the sales tax thing extensively through this election, but there has been Democratic support for looking at ways to increase other taxes in Montana, like ones that haven't been changed for decades, or taxes on higher income people or second homes in Montana. To be clear, Cooney isn't saying he backs those. In an interview this week, he said he'd be really hesitant to look at taxes given that we're in a pandemic. But they're ideas Democrats have floated so, it's another attack for Republicans, another opening that they're using here.

I think some of the weaker points of this ad -- it talks about Cooney having made a million dollars of taxpayers and taxes have risen over the years that he's been in office. You've heard over the election in the 44 years Cooney spent in politics, if you divide a million dollars out over that time, that's a pretty low annual salary, $27,000 a year or so. And of course, you know, over that time, taxes would go up as the cost of everything goes up. But as quick soundbites, I think this is things that Republicans think are going to stick with voters and that's why we're hearing them now. So, I'll be curious, I don't know if this ad has a ton of effect this late in the game, but it is trying to get those soundbites out.

Sally Mauk Rob. The Cooney campaign this week also released a video of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie supposedly urging Greg Gianforte to move back to New Jersey, where Gianforte once lived many years ago. Here's part of that Christie video.

[Chris Christie] This is former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. I have a special message today for you, Greg. I understand you left Jersey some time ago for work. And, that happens sometimes, but Jersey never quite leaves you, does it?

Sally Mauk Christie goes on to list New Jersey's attributes. And the problem Rob, is that Christie thought he was just talking to a different Greg, not Gianforte, because the Cooney campaign duped him into making this video under very false pretenses.

Rob Saldin Yes, Sally was definitely a dirty trick. As you say, they deliberately misrepresented what was going on here. Maybe it's effective, it does reinforce this old knock on Gianforte that we've been hearing for five years that he's a New Jersey carpetbagger. I wonder if some of that is kind of worn off, that it doesn't quite pack the punch as it did when Gianforte was brand new on the scene. Montanans have gotten more used to Gianforte.

The other thing that strikes me is just that the whole episode carries some risk for Cooney in making him appear potentially hypocritical. His campaign has been harping for weeks about how Gianforte is a liar and they've got this whole, you know, kind of hokey effort to draw connections between Gianforte and what they call famous liars, like the fictional cartoon character Jafar, the villain from Aladdin, and stuff like that. Well, the Cooney people just went out and basically lied to Christie to trick him into making the video. So that's a little bit of an issue, too, I'd say.

Sally Mauk In the Senate race, Rob, Steve Daines brought two of his colleagues to Montana this week, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. I'm not sure how popular either of those men are in Montana, but I guess Daines thinks it can't hurt to bring them here to campaign. What do you think?

Rob Saldin Cruz, in particular, is noted for being not popular. So there's that. Don Jr. is coming, too. So, the original plan here was that the boss was going to make a return trip out here to Montana to support Daines, just like he did for Rosendale a couple of years ago. And in fact, came out here four times. But President Trump obviously has bigger things to worry about at this point. And so, you know, now we're kind of on to the B or the C team. One other factor, you know, Holly was speaking to this earlier, but at this point, a lot of the vote is already in. And I also wonder whether there's the possibility that this kind of thing could actually do a little harm at this point. You know, the remaining vote yet to come in is likely to be weighted toward voters who, for whatever reason, still aren't sure who they're going to vote for. And this comes just at a time where we're seeing a legit spike in COVID. We just hit a statewide record, in fact. So images of Republicans holding these large gatherings with second-tier national figures and flaunting safety protocols and everything else. That doesn't necessarily strike me as a great way to pick up those last remaining undecided voters.

Sally Mauk Finally, Holly and Rob, there's a lot of speculation that with the top races so close and with the high turnout, that we may not know on election night who won or lost. I'm guessing we will know some, but we won't know all. Holly, what do you think?

Holly Michels Yeah, I think it's going to be a long night for reporters like me. I think like Rob was saying earlier, the governor's race has had a little more of a margin than others we've seen, so maybe that one we might know. But like you said, that's tightening. I'm guessing I'll probably be writing my final stories Wednesday morning and not Tuesday night.

Rob Saldin Yeah, and I'd say we can expect basically a normal election night here in Montana. You know, there's been an enormous amount of attention on the possibility that nationally it could take days or even weeks before we know the result. I don't anticipate that being an issue here in Montana. Now, Holly, as you say, if things are close, we might not know for sure until Wednesday morning. And that was certainly the case in the Senate election a couple of years ago. I remember Sally, we called it a night at the studio with Chuck, I think around 11 or 12, and it was still up in the air. But, by the time I went to bed a few hours later, it was also pretty clear that things were looking really good for Tester.

So, you know, we might not know by the end of the day on Tuesday, but that's also not atypical in Montana. And there's no reason to think that we're going to be still in the dark several days later, which is an issue in some states in the country. So, no, I expect we'll know late Tuesday night or when people wake up Wednesday morning.

Holly Michels One thing I did just want to emphasize is, you know, if it takes a while to count the votes, if we don't know right away, that's a sign that everything's working right, that elections officials are taking their time, getting ballots counted, that things are accurate. So like Rob said, it's normal to not know these things immediately after the polls close, and it takes some time. But that's just a sign the process is going how it should go.

Sally Mauk And, as far as we know, the process so far is going quite well. The three of us will all be working election night. Holly reporting for Lee newspapers and Rob and I doing analysis for Montana Public Radio as soon as the polls close. Holly and Rob, I suggest spending the weekend storing up some sleep and we'll talk again soon. Thank you.

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.