Tonight on "Campaign Beat:" Trump threatens Tester, Republicans debate who's a "real Montanan," and the new campaign ads range from funny to poignant. Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin review this week's Montana campaign news.
Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Campaign Beat" our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. And Rob joins us today by phone from Portland.
Rob, Senator Jon Tester was all over the national news this week as he led the investigation to whether President Trump's personal physician Dr. Ronny Jackson is qualified to be the new head of Veterans Affairs. Numerous people made several allegations of misconduct against Jackson and he withdrew from consideration for the job. In an interview with Fox News, President Trump is threatening Tester with retribution, implying he will work to defeat Tester's re-election.
"And I watch what Jon Tester of Montana — a state that I won by like over 20 points, so really, they love me and I love them. And I wanna tell you that Jon Tester, I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state," Trump said Thursday.
SM: Well what do you think Rob? Will Tester's role in the Jackson nomination hurt or help him in November?
Rob Saldin: Well look, Tester does need to get votes from Trump voters. That's just the way it works for a Democrat in the state of Montana. And I think we've seen that Tester has made a real effort to avoid directly antagonizing or criticizing the president. So I think this probably isn't how Tester would have drawn it up, getting forcefully attacked by the president in this way. There does seem to maybe be an implicit threat that Trump might come out to Montana at some point in the fall to directly campaign for the Republican and against Tester. I'm not sure that the Tester people would be thrilled about any of that.
But all that said, I think Tester comes out of this looking pretty good, especially for people who really know the V.A. and are concerned about it. Because the other issue with Jackson quite apart from the allegations this week is that he had none of the qualifications that you would expect for someone managing this enormous operation which is the V.A. He is just a doctor like your doctor or my doctor. That's his qualification along with being a veteran. But he has no management experience at all. And so I think people who look at any of the details of this case, you know I think Tester comes out looking OK and Trump kind of looks reckless in putting someone forward like this with Jackson's lack of experience.
SM: He does manage, I think, a staff of about 70; but that pales in comparison to the tens of thousands he would manage under the Veterans Affairs Department. And the concerns, Rob, about his nomination were bipartisan, We should point that out too, it wasn't just Democrats.
RS: That's right. There's no doubt that there are some kind of hard core "drain the swamp" people who probably like the idea of someone who isn't an expert taking over these things and like the idea of just having someone with some basic common sense being in charge. So those people and hard core Trump supporters. Tester probably doesn't look too good to them. But again, I think anyone who looks at this issue really on its own terms, Jackson just appears to not have the qualifications and the background that you'd expect for somebody leading the V.A.
SM: Meanwhile the Senate Majority PAC has a new ad out defending Tester and slamming the Koch brothers opposition to him.
Senate Majority PAC ad: "These guys, the New York billionaire Koch Brothers. They're not from Montana and their attacks on Jon Tester just aren't true. They wanted a health care bill that would raise premiums 20 percent. And Tester said no because Tester doesn't work for them. He works for Montana. Tester's fighting to lower drug prices and stop cuts to Medicare. Jon Tester: Montana true — as in he's responsible for the content of this advertising.".
SM: This ad is in response to ads attacking Tester on health care, and one of which we aired last week, Rob.
RS: Yep, and it features the Koch brothers who for progressives are some of the real bogeymen out there in American politics and just conjure up all the images of corruption and the undue influence of money and all that. And so it prominently features them. I think it is something that will be certainly very effective in mobilizing Tester's base. This is a message that will really resonate there and then I think, in kind of the more general space, it presents Tester, as I think we're going to be seeing a lot, as a man of the people and someone who isn't beholden to anyone, to special interests. He's just out there fighting for the good of Montana. And so that's his message. The Republicans will attack him on that and say it's not true. And where people come down on that, I think, will have a big role in shaping who wins in November.
SM: And we'll be seeing a lot more of these dueling PAC ads I'm sure.
Chuck, the four Republicans who want to unseat Jon Tester held another debate, this time in Helena. And the issue of who's a "real Montanan" came up again. The latest flap is over Matt Rosendale signing a real-estate tax form that said he's a Maryland resident. But the title company for the sale said it was their fault. Here's Rosendale response to whether that's going to hurt him in the campaign:
"I'll probably take a couple of hits on not being born here either. And I'll tell you, there's only one person I know in this world that was able to select where he was born, and that was 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. The rest of us, we just get to pick where we're gonna live," Rosendale said.
SM: And Chuck, I guess you can't go wrong making comparisons with Jesus.
Chuck Johnson: Well, I thought it was a pretty good answer, actually. And as we've talked about in the show for several years, this is always an issue: who's really a Montanan. And the natives have an advantage over the people that chose to move here, although, again I've never thought it was much of an issue. But people choose to live where they choose to live.
But it's an issue, of course, with another candidate in the race, Troy Downing. His Montana credentials have been questioned as well for months prior to this, with him trying to buy in-state Montana hunting and fishing licenses when he was at least accused of living in California. Now we have Rosendale under attack by Russ Fagg for signing these papers in Maryland. And Rosendale says it's the title company's mistake, and we'll, I'm sure, see more digging by reporters on this .
SM: Chuck, Matt Rosedale also has a new TV ad out featuring his wife giving him a buzz haircut.
Rosendale ad: "For Matt, cutting spending is personal. When Montana's budget was in crisis , Matt cut his operating costs by 23 percent. And when they passed a pay raise for politicians, Matt didn't take it. Only one who didn't."
"You know government needs a haircut. If we keep their spending down that's more money in your pocket. I practice what I preach. Just ask my wife.".
"Oh he's cheap.".
"I'm Matt Rosendale and I approve this message.".
SM: This is a pretty good ad Chuck. It's funny and it gets the point across that Rosendale is a fiscal conservative.
CJ: I think it's a good ad. We've seen haircut ads used in the past by Senator Jon Tester. I think it works. Like you say, it's got the humor, it's got the message. You know, he's tight. And, I don't know, I like the ad.
SM: Rob, in the House race, the three leading challengers in the Democratic primary all now have ads on television. And here's Kathleen Williams' first ad:
Williams Ad: "When I was 11 my mother started to lose her memory. She was so young for Alzheimers. My father and I became her caregivers. I know how an illness can affect a family. It's hard. We need to make sure every family has healthcare. As a state legislator, I stopped insurers from denying cancer care. In Congress, we will fix health care and I will be the strongest champion for Medicare and Social Security that Montana has ever seen. I am Kathleen Williams and I approve this message.".
SM: And Rob, personal stories are usually pretty effective. This is a very personal story.
RS: It is. It goes all-in on the health care issue. And I guess it does have a way of humanizing that, putting a human face on that issue, and so I think that works well. I guess the one thing that I find somewhat un-traditional with the ad is that, remember that most Montana voters — this will be the first thing they see of Kathleen Williams. You know, we follow this stuff very closely, but most people don't. And a lot of times it would be more conventional to release the kind of ad that we saw from Kier a week ago or so in which basically you're just trying to introduce yourself and create some kind of positive connotations. Remember he had his smiling family around him, things like this, rather than to kind of go deep on a policy issue. So it's a little unconventional in that sense.
SM: Chuck, who do you think Kathleen Williams was targeting in this ad?
CJ: Well, I think the primary people she's targeting are women, and they make a big percentage of the Democratic voters. And I also think it gets the health care message across and some personal part of her. She doesn't have the money that John Heenan and Grant Kier do. So this may be her main ad, or one of her main ads. I thought it was very effective. I liked it.
SM: And then John Heenan has another ad on the air and this one is airing on stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting.
Heenan ad: "I'm John Heenan, consumer advocate and candidate for U.S. Congress. This station is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, a powerful corporation that forces its journalists to read corporate talking-points on the air. A corporation using its power to take advantage of journalists, our democracy, and the people of Montana: not on my watch. I'm John Heenan and I approve this message because to me it's about the people, not the powerful.".
SM: He's referring, Rob, to a statement that Sinclair made its news anchors read attacking "fake news," a Trump talking point. And this Heenan ad got some national attention because of that.
RS: It did. And I think it's really effective in that it hits on a central theme of Heenan's that there are bad actors out there, be it corporations, insurance companies and so on, and that these bad actors are taking advantage of normal people. And Heenan is going to fight back .
I mean, this really is who he is and it's what he's built his campaign around. And it distinguishes him, I think in some important ways, from the other candidates. So we see all of that in this ad. And as you mentioned, Sally, it also got some national attention and that is nice for a number of reasons, but maybe top of the list it might help him on the fundraising front. But, the one thing that I thought didn't quite work as well in this ad is just that the delivery is a little understated, particularly given the forceful message that he's conveying. So we don't quite see the fire in the belly that does come out, I think, when he's speaking in front of a group or at a debate. That's just not quite there in this ad.
SM: What do you think, Chuck?.
CJ: I thought the message was a good one. I thought to some extent it's inside baseball. I would bet very few Montanans even know who Sinclair Broadcasting is, much less the controversy. On the other hand, for Democratic primary voters it's a good message. And as Rob said, may yield to him some campaign donations.
Yet the Heenan ads so far, I think, have not been the same production quality as the ones by Grant Kier and even Kathleen Williams. They're just sort of a guy standing out in the street. He's got the most money. He clearly must be saving it on production costs because they're kind of amateurish, I think.
SM: Chuck, mail-in ballots go out for the June primary very soon. So candidates, really, they're running out of time to distinguish themselves. It's now or never.
CJ: That's correct Sally. They've got to get their advertising and their mailers out soon. And the way we have our elections now with so many people voting the absentee ballots, campaigns really have to do two campaigns. One to hit the people that get their absentee ballots three or four weeks before the election, and the other for those electors who vote on Election Day. And it becomes a trick of getting two different messages to two different sets of voters. And costly. So this gives a real advantage to the campaigns that have the most money.
SM: You've been listening to "Campaign Beat" our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. Thanks guys, and we'll talk to you next week.