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Campaign Beat: Will He Or Won't He And Why Does It Matter?

Gov. Steve Bullock's anticipated about-face on a U.S. Senate run has upended the outlook for that race. The latest picks for lieutenant governor bring both balance and contrast. And we honor the outstanding legacy left by the late journalist John Kuglin.

Listen now on Campaign Beat, MTPR's weekly political analysis program, with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

Sally MaukHolly, the top political story that broke this week in Montana was also a top national political story, and that is that Gov. Steve Bullock will likely announce on Monday, the filing deadline in Montana, that he is going to run for the U.S. Senate in hopes of unseating Republican incumbent Steve Daines. This follows months of denials that he was interested in being a U.S. senator. And those denials began as far back as when he announced he was running for president last May. And here's what Gov. Bullock told me when he announced and said he had no interest in being a senator.

"My experience is as an executive, not as a legislator. I've been able to have success in that arena. And that's why I think that my talents are best suited. "

MaukIf your presidential race falters, would you consider at some point the Senate race?

"No, I wouldn't. Even before I decided to launch into a presidential race pretty consistently said I didn't have much interest in serving as a senator in Washington, D.C."

MaukSo you're ruling that out?

"Yes, ma'am."

MaukHolly, I believed him. Silly me.

Holly MichelsYeah, I was in the same boat as you, Sally. I remember there was a press conference Bullock held just a couple days after he dropped out of the presidential race. And I remember the quote I used to start my story at the time was him saying, 'I've said it before. I've said it during I said it when I got out. I'm not running for Senate.' And I remember he said some iteration of that so many times. I think every reporter in that room used a similar quote, but not the same one because there were so many examples of him saying no. I did a real rough estimate of the number of stories I've written in the last year that at least mentioned Bullock saying he won't run for Senate and use some of those about other candidates or just the race generally. But I'd probably written about 75 times him saying that he has no interest in that race, alongside just separate stories just about him not having any interest in running. So definitely a real shift from what he has said many, many times.

MaukBullock's family supposedly had to approve his candidacy, but I suspect, Holly, that that was a small factor among many larger ones and his change of heart.

MichelsYeah. We, in the last several weeks, we reported, and this was following national reporting, that Bullock met with former President Barack Obama when he was in D.C. For the National Governors Association meeting. And then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer just a couple weeks ago flew to Montana to meet with the governor. So pressure there. And we've asked the governor before and he's said, you know, he's gotten pressure from a lot of big people within the party nationally. We asked Bullock after the meetings with Obama and Schumer and he wouldn't comment about what they discussed. I did get his office to say after the Schumer meeting, and that was just two weeks ago, that they said nothing's changed. Bullock's office didn't really respond to Montana media, asking him where he was this week with the Senate race, but The New York Times said in an email he declined to say if he'd run for Senate, which is a pretty big shift from previous statements like you played earlier that just was an outright ruling-out of ever running.

MaukRob, do you think Super Tuesday had anything to do with Bullock getting into the race? The results of that?

Rob SaldinYeah, absolutely. I dont think that was a coincidence. It's been very clear that a lot of Democrats across the country, including some here in Montana, have been very, very worried about having Sanders at the top of the ticket, that that would have some serious downballot consequences and all the other levels. And so I think what we saw on Tuesday is we had a massive switch from Sanders being the likely Democratic nominee to now Joe Biden being the very likely nominee. And so that has to make it more appealing to Steve Bullock that he's got a real chance to win this thing.

MaukHe doesn't have to say 'I'm not a socialist.'

SaldinRight, he doesn't have to deal with all that stuff.

MaukRob, the Montana Republican Party wasted no time in getting an online ad out that basically emphasizes Bullock's about face. And the ad goes on to accuse Bullock of being more loyal to Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer than to Montanans. I thought it was a pretty effective ad.

SaldinYeah, I suppose so. You know, it's a preview of what we're going to see this summer and fall, assuming that he does announce on Monday. But, you know, I'm not sure that this is going to be something that many voters pay attention to, at least after this first rollout here next week. So I think by the time people are casting ballots in the fall, this will long be forgotten.

MaukMeanwhile, there are several other much less well-known Democrats in the race, Rob, who've been campaigning and fundraising for months, and they can't be happy with his last minute entry.

SaldinNo, no, it's got to be a bitter pill for them. You know, here at the very, very last minute, Bullock changes his mind after they've been out there pounding the pavement for a long, long time. But look, the other cold, hard truth that's been clear for as long as these folks have been running is that none of them have a realistic chance of defeating Steve Daines. Bullock is the only one out there who can plausibly make this a competitive race. Now, that said, I do think there's a little bit of a risk of overstating what's happening here. Even with Bullock jumping in, Daines is still in a strong position. You know, I'd say this campaign is somewhere between a 50/50 toss up and a small edge to Daines. But from the Democrats' perspective, this is a transformational shift to go from somewhere around a 0 percent chance for a pickup, to what should be one of the most competitive and most watched campaigns in the whole country.

MaukAnd we should mention that one of those Democratic candidates, Josh Seckinger, has dropped out and endorsed Bullock. Not sure Seckinger was a top tier candidate, but for what it's worth. Rob, does this help or hurt down ballot Democrats in their races like Mike Cooney or Whitney Williams in the governor's race or Kathleen Williams in the House race? Will they benefit or be hurt by this?

SaldinI think you've got to be thrilled if you're a Democrat in Montana. You know, unless your Cora Neumann or Wilmot Collins, one of those other candidates who had declared, you know, you have to be really, really pleased with this, there's going to be a ton of money pouring into Montana to support Bullock. And that will, I think, have some trickle down effects that should work to the advantage of Democrats across the state. Now, of course, it's true that the Senate campaign is now going to attract a lot more attention than it otherwise would have. And that means that there will be, you know, somewhat less attention given to the other campaigns further down the ballot. But I would make that trade any day without hesitation. You're always going to want people at the top of the ticket who are going to help increase turnout and boost enthusiasm amongst your people, right. I mean, the people who are going to be out voting for Bullock are much more likely to be voting Democratic on down the ballot. So the more them you get out, get enthusiastic, that is all to the good for Montana Democrats. So I think this is a big shot in the arm for them and they're going need all the help they can get this fall.

MaukI'm guessing, too, that Air Force One might land in Montana again, given the high profile nature of that Senate race.

SaldinI wouldn't be surprised. And Daines and Trump are super tight. So, yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if the president wants to come out here and give a little boost to his buddy.

MaukMeanwhile, Holly in the governor's race, all the candidates have now picked their running mates. And the most recent were Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Whitney Williams. And Gianforte picked law professor and former Supreme Court candidate Kristen Juras to be his lieutenant governor. And this is someone Holly whose ideology matches up well with Greg Gianforte.

MichelsYep. I would agree she's very much in line with Gianforte. Definitely not someone who you'd call more moderate than him. So I think that's a sign he's really trying to solidify himself as that most conservative candidate in the Republican primary. Some political analysts I talked to said that that might be a help getting him out of that primary, that those are the voters who tend to show up in a primary might be to the more conservative side of a party, well, the Republican Party. What that might mean in the general, you know, is kind of unknown at this point, but it definitely is someone who is very in line with Gianforte.

MaukJuras said she had planned to retire before Gianforte asked her to run.

"That phone call brought me out of retirement. I am excited about running as his lieutenant governor and working with him to make Montana an even better last best place."

And she also, to state the obvious, Holly, brings some gender balance to that ticket.

MichelsYep. So she is, you know, if you're looking at the governor's race, both governor and lieutenant governor candidates, she's the only other woman besides Democratic governor candidate Whitney Williams. Probably worth pointing out Montanans just had one female governor, so that does introduce [?] Gianforte in 2016 also picked a woman to be his running mate.

You know what we're talking about before with similarities between the two, she also emphasized a business background when they had that announcement and Billings. So that's another way. She's a lot like Gianforte, but she also adds some ag components. She was talking about growing up on a family ranch outside Conrad, you know, in the Supreme Court race She talked about being one of the only candidates who's opened a head gate and litigated a water claim. So I think they're trying to kind of add that element. But it is, you know, looking around the room at that event in Billings, a lot of the more conservative state legislators were at that announcement. Jeff Laszloffy, who's head of the Montana Family Foundation, was there. Both Juras and Gianforte are very religious. She's a Catholic and actually got some criticism in that Supreme Court race you mentioned for emails that she sent when as a law professor at UM to a colleague saying that she really wanted to be on the court because she wanted to weigh in on religious freedom cases she saw coming down the pipe. And so definitely in line with Gianforte and a lot of ways.

MaukRob, Democrat Whitney Williams, I think may have made the most surprising choice for a running mate, is someone who like her has no previous political experience. And she has picked eastern Montana barley farmer Buzz Mattelin.

SaldinYeah, exactly, Sally. You know, I always look at these picks; you can kind of do it in one of two ways, right? There are two models for picking a running mate. You can try to balance out your weaknesses or you can try to highlight your strengths. And kind of to analogize to presidential politics, classic example of balancing out your weaknesses was John Kennedy, the young northern Catholic picking Lyndon Johnson, the southern Protestant, with all those decades of experience in Washington. And then, by contrast, right, a classic example of underscoring your strengths was Bill Clinton picking Al Gore, who is basically a slightly more boring version of himself, a young moderate Southerner. And yet, you know, I'd say Williams and Mattelin do have that combined outsider thing. But in a lot of other ways, this looks like kind of a balancing pick. And you see it in terms of background, geography, cultural milieu.

MaukMattelin says he hopes to highlight rural issues.

"I will take any opportunity to bring agricultural issues, our rural economy and the concerns of folks living in eastern Montana to Helena. And I'm excited to do this alongside of Whitney Williams."

MaukAnd he does balance whitney Williams' much more urban background, Rob.

SaldinYeah, exactly. You know, Williams is from Missoula. Mattelin is from the far northeastern corner of the state. Williams recently returned home to Montana. Mattelin has always been here. Williams has been all over the world working at the very elite level of politics and philanthropy. And Mattelin has spent his life right here in Montana, working in ranching and in farming.

MaukFinally, Holly, Montana lost one of its finest journalists this week when John Kuglin died. And Kuglin was a longtime Associated Press bureau chief from Montana and Wyoming before he retired. I knew John, was always so impressed with his ethics and his commitment to a free press. Plus, he was a really nice guy and he'll also be remembered for starting Montana's Freedom of Information hotline in the late 80s. And that's a hugely important resource for Montana journalists.

MichelsIt is. It's one that I've used many times in my career. I think it's really hard to overstate John Kuglin's legacy in Montana media. I reached out to Chuck Johnson, who had my job before me and worked alongside Kuglin, and he sort of ran down because he was there and saw a lot of this unfold at the time. Chuck said that there is a district judge who put Kuglin aside and said the other a lot of cases coming that would restrict the public's right to know and suggested forming a watchdog group which turned into the FOIA hotline. There were some others involved in that, but Chuck said Kuglin was really the heart and soul of that and deserves much of the credit for its success. I chatted with Melody Martinsen, who's on the hotline board now, who works at The Choteau Acantha, she's the editor there. And she said that they get about 200 calls every year. So it's very much something that is used by a lot of people. Also, citizens use it, in addition to journalists. I think in Montana it's easy to forget that we have this very open government because of things like the hotline and just how much of a difference that makes for the jobs we do as journalists. But also, if you look at, you know, government functions much better when things have a little sunlight on them. And that's a debt I think we owe to John Kuglin that goes far beyond just the journalism world.

MaukLike you said, Holly, John Kuglin left a wonderful legacy for Montana journalism and for Montana.

Holly, Rob, this has been a busy week. Thanks. And we'll reconvene next week.

Campaign Beat, is 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.