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Sorry, Not Sorry; Senate Race Grows; Green Party Mystery

A Billings legislator's apology rings hollow. A new TV ad in the governor's race looks familiar. The U.S. Senate race has two more candidates. Census officials aren't happy about a Republican mailer. And the mystery deepens over who's sponsoring a 3rd party ballot petition.

Listen now on Campaign Beat.

Sally MaukHolly, Billings legislator, Rodney Garcia this week apologized, sort of, for remarks he made earlier that socialist should be imprisoned or shot. And he now says the remarks were "inappropriate and meant as a joke." And he also says he's not going to resign, as Republican leaders have asked him to do.

And Holly, you were there when he made these offensive remarks and you even followed up with him about whether he was serious or not. And he wasn't joking, was he?

Holly MichelsNo. So at the time when I interviewed him, which was a day after his initial remarks, I asked him several times to clarify what he was saying, just to make sure that I understood that he understood the seriousness of the comments. At the end of our interview, I asked him — and this is something I do at the end of every interview that I conduct — is ask people if there's any context today I should be aware of about what we talked about. If there's anything that didn't come up we should have discussed. If there's anything I missed. So he had pretty ample opportunity at the time to say that he was joking, and he did not. He sent a letter to news outlets around the state that said that it was a joke, and that came after he got a primary challenger in his state Senate race. So the timing of that is probably something to consider here.

MaukAs you say, he does have a challenger now for the state Senate seat he's running for. And that is Billings City Councilman Chris Friedel.

MichelsYeah, he served in the city council in Billings, like you said. He's seen as sort of a known entity in that community. I'm not too aware of what he's done, but I think people in Billings are pretty familiar with him. It's a seat that right now is actually held by a Democrat, Margie MacDonald. She is in her first term in the state Senate and is seeking reelection.

MaukEven if he won the primary, of course, he would face a strong race against an incumbent.

Rob, one of the first, if not the first TV ads in the governor's race aired this week. And it's not surprising that it's from the candidate who has the most money. Republican Greg Gianforte. And he also has a new ad online. And here's an excerpt.

"... But to reach our fullest potential, Montana needs a conservative leader who shares our values. That's why Greg Gianforte is running for governor. A job creator, Greg Gianforte started a company in his Bozeman home that grew to become one of the state's largest employers ..."

MaukAnd this ad, Rob, emphasizes, I think, what are the two main themes of Gianforte's campaign. He's a conservative and a "job creator."

Rob SaldinYeah, this is pretty much bread and butter stuff for a Republican campaign. And on that conservative point, I mean, I think that is what he's trying to emphasize in the primary to the extent he's focused on that at all. You know, it's that he's the conservative. Although you could also look at this as basically as much a general election ad as one aimed at the primary.

You know, Sally, but the thing that strikes me here is at this point in this campaign for governor, and given the other candidates that are in the mix this cycle, this is an ad that really only Gianforte is in a position to run. And that's because he is at this point very well known. So the thing that stands out to me in this ad, you know, it has that little bit of the biography about his business, but it's really an ad, I think, designed to remind voters that this is a guy that we know and that he's a real Montanan. There's no need to introduce Gianforte to Montanans, which is the kind of thing that you often see early in a campaign from a lot of candidates. But for Gianforte, this is his fourth high profile statewide campaign in his many years. He's in his second term in Congress. His name recognition is through the roof. So the point here is just to remind us with fingers crossed that we like the guy.

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

And a key to that is reinforcing this point that he's a real Montanan. And of course, this has been a weak spot for Gianforte. Bullock killed him on it four years ago, you know, saying he was a New Jersey carpetbagger, basically, and perhaps even worse, a rich person at that. But he's also been hit on this point in his congressional campaign. So I think we see, you can't see it over the radio, of course, but we see a lot of those Montana images. If you actually watch the ad, the scenery, you know, I think that's Holland Lake featured there at the beginning and Avalanche Lake in Glacier towards the end. You get some men working the land and in timber mills, his buddy, President Trump, on one of his visits here to Montana. There are some guns. So all the highlights. And a lot of these images, I think are actually old shots that he's used in previous runs, but in a way that actually, I think, serves to reinforce the point that this is somebody we're familiar with and that he's one of us.

MaukHolly, the U.S. Senate race gained two new candidates this week, one in each party. Bozeman fly fishing guide Josh Seckinger joins four other candidates in the Democratic primary. And then in the Republican primaries, Senator Steve Daines will be challenged by Stevensville store manager Dan Larson. And I think the latter candidacy is the most surprising. I'm not sure Senator Daines expected to have a primary challenger.

MichelsI think you're right, Sally, that that was pretty unexpected. Daines is coming into this seeking a second term in the Senate. He was in the House before, pretty well established in the party in Montana. I don't think anybody was expecting him to draw a challenger.

Larson is pretty politically unknown. He said that he's disagreed with Daines, looking at when he didn't vote to call witnesses in President Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate. And he also said that he didn't disagree with Daines voting against removing a president from office. He did describe himself as a conservative, but said he hasn't really found a home in the Republican Party. But if you look at his history, he does have a history of donating to Democratic candidates this cycle. He gave to Andrew Yang, who dropped out as Democratic presidential primary earlier this year. And he also said he told our reporter in Billings he had given to two of the Democrats, actually, in that Senate race. Cora Neumann from Bozeman, and Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins. But there aren't records showing that with the state commissioner of political practices.

I'm a little surprised that Daines, his primary challenger, has'nt come out of one of the things that could be seen as maybe a potential weakness, but still pretty minor for him, is a proposal he's brought at the federal level on the Salish Kootenai Water Compact, which is pretty divisive among Republicans. And State Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci had actually threatened to primary Daines in part over that. We haven't seen that threat materialize.

The other candidate, Democrat Josh Seckinger, I think what's interesting about him, one of the things, is if you include Daines, it's actually the fourth person from Bozeman to join this race. He's a fly fishing guide, also a political newbie. I think looking at his campaign bio it's also one of the first times I've seen someone say so prominently and early that they're not from Montana. He talks a lot about his reasons for moving here and why. He also in that bio admitted to getting two DUIs and spending about two weeks in the county detention center down in Bozeman because of them. Sorta talked about that he's worked through that and it's an important piece of his history. He's, I think, pretty far on the liberal end of the spectrum; says he's for a public option for health care, using that as a path toward universal health care. He also said that he wants to legalize and tax recreational marijuana. So, I think some of his platform is, you know, we haven't seen much about where Democrats in that race are. I think he's probably, maybe to the left as some of the candidates in there so far.

MaukRob, census officials are not happy that the Republican National Committee recently sent a mailer to residents of Cascade County that looks like an official census document and asks for recipients to send $15 for, "processing." Apparently, the RNC sent the same mailer to some other county residents last year. And this seems just on the face of it, a really stinky thing to do.

SaldinYeah, I guess Sally. I got to say, looking at the thing, I'm a little bit underwhelmed about how nefarious this is. It does say right at the top 2020 Congressional District Census. You know, I suppose the use of the word census is probably not coincidental given that this is a census year. And to the extent that this is a deliberate attempt to basically deceive people, that this might be the real census, you know, that's unethical. But that said, it also doesn't strike me as all that unusual for these kinds of mailings. These things often come under the auspices, as this one does, as some kind of quote unquote, official business or official documents or other blustery kind of language. And of course, that's ridiculous. These things are fundraising propaganda, pure and simple. But perhaps more importantly, you know, as I look at this thing, this mailing very prominently says that this is commissioned by the Republican Party. It also says in the first sentence that our overall strategy is to ensure President Trump and Republican candidates are reelected, and so on and so forth. So I have a little bit of a hard time imagining that there are too many people out there that are going to look at this and get confused that this is the real census. On the other hand, you know, if you're one of the people working on the census, this is not the kind of thing you want to have out there.

MaukJosh Manning is one of the people working on the census count in Montana. It doesn't begin until mid-March. And this is what he had to say.

"We're not gonna ask for your bank account information. We're not gonna ask for money, and we're definitely not going to ask for your Social Security number and we're not gonna ask for your political beliefs. "

MaukAnd he's warning people, Rob, to be leery of fake census documents. And census officials, seemed to me, even though you find it not all that hard to figure out that this is fake; but there might be word that this could discourage participation.

SaldinYeah, it kind of muddies the water. And, you know, if you're getting a whole bunch of things that says a census on it, when the real one comes, you might legitimately worry that people just put it aside or throw it in the trash. For these people working on the census, you know, they're worried. And, you know, Holly, I think you mentioned this last week, that we don't have a huge budget for this in the state of Montana. So anything that takes away from people actually filling the thing out is problematic. You know, even if you do look at this particular mailing and I think pretty quickly, you can surmise that this is not the real census. Gosh, if you're working on the census, you just don't want any confusion out there at all or anything that leads people to miss the real thing when it comes.

MaukWe've talked before about how important this census is to Montana in terms of federal funding, in terms of maybe getting another congressional seat.

Holly, finally, in the realm of shenanigans, some unknown group has gathered signatures and submitted petitions around the state to qualify the Green Party for the ballot, a move that is seen as possibly helping Republican candidates. The Green Party in Montana says it's not them. And a conservative PAC, the Club for Growth, says it's not them either. So who is it?

MichelsThat's a really good question that I would like to find out the answer to. I spent a lot of time this morning down at the county elections office here going through those petition forms that have been dropped off. There's about 73 packets. Packets can have anywhere from one to a couple hundred signatures in them from voters around the state. When a person drops off these packets, they have to give their name and their home address. Frustrating for me today is they don't have to put a cell phone or other way to contact them other than a mailing address. A lot of the people who submitted those — I think I saw just one person this morning who submitted signatures in Helena that was from Montana. The rest were all out of state addresses, which could indicate that this is some sort of paid operation to get the Green Party on the ballot.

Like you said, Sally, the Green Party in Montana said that they're not doing any of that work this year. They don't have any candidates they plan on running. They're going to focus maybe by 2022 to try to qualify again for the ballot.

Club for Growth, their political action committee, said in an email to our commissioner of political practices here in Montana that they told the vendor they were using to contract with signature gathers that they were stopping those efforts on February 5th. And they also told the commissioner that they didn't plan to submit any of the signatures that they gathered. So a lot of those signatures I saw today in Helena were gathered after February 5th, so there could be some sort of miscommunication that Club for Growth had with its vendor. Maybe the information didn't trickle down to people who were gathering and turning in signatures. But it could be that someone else is doing that work. If someone is spending money — more than $500 —they would need to report it by April. They would also need to register as a committee to do this kind of work. So hopefully we'll see some sort of paperwork filed soon to give us an idea of who's behind it.

MaukThere are two debates in the Democratic governor, and Senate primary races taking place soon after we record this program. And we will talk about those next week.

This is Campaign Beat, a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio featuring 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