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Tester's No Bernie Bro; Daines Is Flush With PAC Money; MTLeg Studies Yearly Sessions

This week on Campaign Beat: Sen. Tester has some qualms about Bernie Sanders topping the Democratic ticket for president. Sen. Daines has no qualms about whether President Trump should stay in office. Former Montana congressman and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resurfaces. And Montana lawmakers revisit annual sessions.

Listen now with MTPR's Sally Mauk, Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michaels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Sally MaukRob, the Democratic candidates for president held their last debate this week before the Iowa caucuses next month. And polls show Bernie Sanders could win Iowa. And that has a lot of moderate Democrats worried, including Montana Senator Jon Tester. And Tester recently said, "I come from a state that's pretty damn red. There is no doubt that having socialist ahead of Democrat is not a positive thing in the state of Montana."

I don't think Senator Tester is a Bernie bro.

Rob SaldinNo, definitely not. And I think there probably are safer choices out there for sure. It feels a little bit to me like deja vu. You know, it was right about this time four years ago that establishment Republicans started panicking over the creeping realization that it might actually be possible for Donald Trump to win the GOP nomination. And that freakout quickly coalesced around what was called the "Never Trump" movement.

Now obviously, there are major differences between Trump and Bernie. But like four years ago, there are a few key objections that are consistent, right? There is the concern that Bernie's nomination would dramatically decrease the likelihood of Democrats retaking the White House. There is the concern that Sanders would do real harm to a lot of other Democrats running in down-ballot races across the country. And then there's the concern that he's just not a real Democrat and that he represents a stark departure from the party's ideological orthodoxy.

Now, Tester's comments were directed at the down-ballot issue, which strikes me as a legitimate concern, especially in a state like Montana; although it's probably worth remembering that four years ago Bernie Sanders did win the Democratic primary easily here. Now, that was just the Democratic primary, not in the general election. I think also that unlike some of the others who've voiced those concerns, and the people voicing those concerns include another prominent Montanans; Obama's former campaign manager, Jim Messina. But Tester did hedge a bit, right? He said Sanders could overcome these challenges, but that he'd have to take them seriously.

MaukWe should point out that Tester has not yet endorsed any of the Democratic presidential candidates, but he did endorse, Rob, this week, a gubernatorial candidate, and that is Mike Cooney.

SaldinThat's right, Sally. And I think that's pretty significant. Now you have both of the real prominent leading Democrats in the state getting behind Cooney, in addition to Tester that's Steve Bullock. And, you know, I remember a couple of years ago going to some Tester events and Mike Cooney was there, warming up the crowd, introducing him. And so I think, you know, both Bullock and Tester have some debts to pay to Cooney.

MaukHolly, last week we talked about how one of the Democratic candidates for Senate Cora Neumann had had a good fundraising quarter. And this week we learned that the incumbent Republican, Steve Daines, raised $1.4 million in the last quarter. And that's more than three times what Newman raised and what anybody else has raised.

Holly MichelsYes, Sally. This was Daines' best quarter of the election and it brings his total for the cycle to about $5.2 million, which as you pointed out with the Cora Neumann numbers we talked about last week, those were pretty impressive among Democratic candidates. But Daines is just far, far away from what the other Democrats in the race have been able to raise.

On Daines' numbers I think it's interesting to look at, like a lot of incumbents, he's getting a lot of support from political action committees. In the most recent report from the fourth quarter, he pulled in about $300,000 dollars from PACs. That's down from what he did in the previous report over the third quarter where he got about $371,000. We don't have the full report for Daines in the fourth quarter, but from his previous reports, we can see that he's getting PAC support from groups like Club for Growth, which backs candidates that fit with their limited government message. We're also seeing PAC support from petroleum interests from groups like Core Civic, which the state of Montana contracts with to run the private prison up in Shelby. And then also some Montana banks and businesses like Town Pump. Over the cycle, so far, it looks like Daines has about $1.6 million From PACs.

And you know, like I said before, PACs tend to support incumbents like Daines. And that's pretty clear when you look at the other federal level candidates in Montana right now. Daines is the only incumbent, and of the other candidates, I think the highest one with a PAC reporting is about $26,000. That does make it easier for those candidates to issue a 'no PAC money' pledge to the incumbent, arguing that it would make them beholden to corporate interests. But of course, it's a lot easier to do that when the PACs aren't looking at giving you money anyway.

MaukEasy to give up money you're not going to get, right?

Rob, Senator Daines will, of course, be one of 100 jurors next week and President Trump's impeachment trial. And this week he released this statement about the trial.

"Well, day one of the impeachment trial the president was treated very unfairly in the U.S. House. He will receive fair treatment in the U.S. Senate. And I'm very confident the president will be acquitted when this is all said and done by the U.S. Senate," Daines said.

And, Rob. That's not something you normally hear a juror say before trial that, "I'm confident the defendant will be acquitted."

SaldinRight, right. I mean, just hours after he takes this solemn vow to do impartial justice according to the constitution and the laws, he launches into this totally procedural defense of the president, ignoring the substantive charges altogether, saying that everyone is basically being mean to him and treating him unfairly. And he then, as you suggest, you know, totally undermines the oath he just took by indicating that he's already made up his mind.

Now, of course, Daines isn't the only one doing that. And I think it's also important probably to recognize that impeachment is not strictly a legal process, right. It has a lot of the trappings and the terminology of a legal process, but it's really a political process. And the founders designed it this way. They could have given it to the Supreme Court and made it more of a truly legal proceeding, but they chose not to. And so from that perspective, the idea that all these senators are going to be impartial jurors in the same way that we'd have in a state criminal trial or something like this, it's probably not a reasonable analogy. And yet it's also the case that all of these senators took an oath to be impartial and to be guided by the Constitution and laws. And some of them are just clearly desperate to avoid gathering and grappling with the facts and evidence of the allegations that have been made against the president.

MaukRob, this week, former Montana congressman and former secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, he had some money left over in his congressional campaign, over $11,000. And it came out this week that he donated this money to a charitable foundation started by he and his wife, and is called the Great Northern Foundation. And that donation raised a few eyebrows.

SaldinIt did. It didn't raise mine. I'm definitely not scandalized by this, at least based on what we know, right? For one thing, the foundation that the money is going to apparently just maintains a park up in Whitefish. It's also, as you note, not that much money, right? Less than $12,000 that we're talking about here. That's pretty small potatoes in the grand scope of things. But more importantly, Zinke, he and his wife aren't going to personally benefit financially from that. I mean, if they were, that would be a big problem. But all of this appears to be above board. And then finally, it's just not that unusual for former members of Congress to funnel their unused campaign cash to projects and organizations that they're associated with. I mean, I recall when Max Baucus did this with his extra money, which was a lot more than $12,000. He gave that to the University of Montana to create an archive of his congressional papers. So I don't see anything that's scandalous here.

MichelsI think it's kind of interesting. He sort of dropped away from the public eye after he left the secretary of Interior job. He's back in Helena at the end of this month, speaking at the Republican winter kickoff. So, I'm gonna cover that and I'm kind of curious what he'll have to say. But we just haven't heard from him in a while and he's kind of resurfacing.

MaukWell, I wouldn't be surprised if he continued to be a figure in Montana politics, actually.

SaldinThere were rumors circulating for years that what he really wanted to do was come back and run for governor at some point. He's making a lot of money these days in the private sector. So that might that might cut against a permanent return to Montana.

MaukHolly, state legislators have been on the hill on this week discussing a number of issues, including whether Montana should switch to annual sessions instead of remaining one of only four states whose legislatures meet every two years. And one argument for this switch is that the current system cedes too much power to the governor.

MichelsYeah. Lawmakers point out that they're here for four months and then they're gone for 20. And a lot can happen when they're not in Helena. A lot of legislators who support the idea of annual sessions, they also are arguing that there's not a lot of cross pollination between lawmakers who work on the budget and ones who deal with policy. And the idea of annual sessions, they're saying, is one year review devoted to the budget, another would be devoted to policy. And if you have everyone focusing on one of those things at once, you might get better understanding among the whole body about what goes on in the state budget. A lot of policy people say during legislative week when there was some public testimony about the idea of annual sessions, that they spent their whole time in the Legislature, just on policy and really don't understand what's going on on the budget side.

MaukWhich is something we've all noticed.

I think what a lot of people don't know, perhaps, Holly is that Montana briefly tried annual sessions in the early 1970s, but voters didn't like the idea and voted to return to biennial sessions. And state Senator Diane Sands thinks voters still like the current system.

"I mean, I don't think the public's going to let us have annual sessions no matter how we frame it," Sands says.

And I think she may be right Holly. I haven't heard any public clamor for annual sessions.

MichelsNo, there was no one from the public who really supported them in the hearing during legislative week. And legislators who are opposed to the idea did point out, you know, the Constitutional Convention in '72 put in place annual sessions for the first time. [They]Happened. And then voters almost right away in 1974 said no, they didn't want to do that. We went back to every other year sessions.

Some legislators did suggest other ideas, though, that they think would be good ways to kind of change the setup now. One that a lot of legislators circled around was that, you know, they're elected in November, especially for a freshman Legislature, you just have, you know, a month and a half really to get up to speed. And it's during the holidays so you're pretty busy anyway. And then you come into the session in January and you really don't know what's going on. And then, at the same time, you've got a lot of elected statewide officials who might be coming into their office new and are dealing with legislation they don't know if they support or not that was left by previous elected officials. And if you look at upcoming 2021, you're going to have that, plus a new governor administration. So the argument some people are making is if you maybe delay the start of the session from that first Monday in January, spend some time training people, help them figure out how things function, that might be a way to sort of look at the structure of what's happening and change it. That fits better, you know, voters would still support, you know, you wouldn't have an annual session, but just a different way to set it up that might be more user friendly.

SaldinI'm reminded of that old quip that while Montana's Legislature meets every two years for 90 days, most Montanans would prefer a Legislature that meets for two days every 90 years.

So I definitely agree that Sands is probably right in her assessment of the public appetite for annual sessions. But you know, the people aren't always right. Being an effective legislator requires a level of expertise on some very complicated issues. And when you obsessively try to minimize the time that legislators spend in Helena, immersing themselves in these issues because you think that's a great way to maintain small government, you're really just elevating the power and influence of the governor. But not just the governor, also lobbyists, and you're crippling the intellectual integrity and capacity to operate, of the Legislature.

MichelsThat's one thing that a lot of the discussion around this actually came back to the conversation about term limits. And state Senator Fred Thomas, who actually was behind the push for term limits and helped gather signatures back in 1992 when voters enacted term limits. He was saying now he thinks that's cost a lot of institutional knowledge in the Legislature. So lawmakers are looking to those lobbyists and outside sources, because they're not as up to speed. So the argument is annual sessions, would you get more time in the Legislature and come up to speed quicker.

MaukThe next legislative session isn't until next January. But we have a big election coming up before then that we will continue to cover next week.

You've been listening to 'Campaign Beat,' 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, Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and host Sally Mauk. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, SallyMaukis a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the legislature to forest fires. She also taught broadcast writing and reporting in the University of Montana journalism school.
Rob Saldin
Holly Michels