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Campaign Beat: The Pandemic, The Primary And Third Parties

Campaign fundraising is tricky during a pandemic. The June primary could be mail-in only. State auditor and congressional candidate Matt Rosendale urges Montanans to get coronavirus testing that may not be available. A well-known Republican enters the Senate race — as a Libertarian. And no one knows how a global health crisis will affect the 2020 election.

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

Sally Mauk:Rob the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact all our lives, and the 2020 campaign, of course, is no exception. We have at least one candidate, Mike Cooney, in self-quarantine. We have another candidate sharing pasty recipes on Facebook, and all of them basically canceling all in-person events. But meanwhile, we're being bombarded with fundraising emails from the candidates.

Rob Saldin:That's right, Sally. I mean, the campaigns I think just don't seem quite as important as they did a couple of weeks ago, too, I would add. But yeah, I mean, at least for the next several weeks, quite possibly much longer than that, things like in-person meet and greets are out, and same with in-person fundraisers, obviously. But as you note, I mean, on on the other hand, we do still have all these campaign fundraising emails coming out. And I've actually been a little surprised that that all is just carrying on pretty much as usual, just because given what's going on around us, these email pleas for money just seem obtuse and petty and, more than that, you know, maybe even a little offensive. I mean, we're already seeing a lot of people being hit hard economically. And there's every reason to think that it's going to get a lot worse. And, you know, we see a lot of individuals and organizations out there trying to think through how best we can support our people in our communities who are who are going to suffer on account of this. And yet a lot of these campaigns are still sending out these e-mails begging for money. And I kind of find it off-putting.

Mauk:Of course, they're probably at a loss about what they should be doing right now, given that they can't campaign actually like they normally would, and this is the last thing they can do. But I agree with you. I think it strikes an insensitive tone to what's going on.

Rob, the Montana primary is June 2, and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who's also running for the U.S. House, tweeted out a video saying he's considering all options about how to conduct that primary.

"But where we're at right now, we're taking a deliberate pause for the next week or so, for gathering information and we're talking to people."

The push, Rob, I think, is to move to a completely mail in ballot in the primary, right?

Saldin:Well, I think that's definitely an option. I mean, Stapleton started that message by saying, you know, he's been hearing from people and, you know, talk of postponing the election or something like that. I mean, in a democracy, I think you don't ever want to open the door on stuff like that unless it's absolutely necessary. And as Stapleton mentions in his video, we've run elections in this country under all sorts of challenging conditions. So I expect that we'll find a way to pull this one off as scheduled.

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

You know, it does seem to me that we're in a relatively good position here in Montana for a couple reasons in terms of approaching this primary. I mean, first, we've got a lot of time to work with compared to many other states. I mean, we saw just this week Ohio scrambling just hours before the polls opened, trying to figure out what they were going to do. But our primary, it's dead last on the calendar. So we've got time to be more deliberate and thinking through the options.

And then the other reason we're in comparatively good shape is that we have a very strong vote by mail tradition here that a lot of other states don't have, a lot of states don't have that option at all. And so we have the process in place. We have experience with it. And just culturally, it's something that's well within the bounds of what people consider normal. So we're in a position, I think, to consider, as you suggest, Sally, yeah, shifting to a system that's exclusively vote by mail, either as a temporary measure or as a permanent switch. And in fact, several states already run their elections entirely by mail.

You know, an alternative would be if you don't want to go all vote by mail for whatever reason, you know, Stapleton and others could make a big public push to try to encourage as many people as possible to opt in to the vote by mail option. And in Stapleton's video, he did just that. So the practical effect of that would be to decrease the number of people showing up to polling station. So all that said, I would certainly hope and expect that one way or another we can hold our primary on schedule.

Mauk:Holly, another Republican House candidate and current state auditor, Matt Rosendale, put out a statement announcing he too has suspended campaign related gatherings because of the pandemic. And his statement also says he's been, "busy making sure Montanans across the state have access to free coronavirus testing," and encourages Montanans with symptoms to take advantage of this testing. But the truth is, Holly, widespread testing is not available in Montana. Not even close. And not everyone who wants to get tested is able to.

Holly Michels:Yeah, that's right, Sally. I've been watching just as this has unfolded in Montana. Candidates are really, I think, some, struggling to figure out how to talk about the cornavirus as the're candidates out there and sending emails to their supporters. The quote from Rosendale I think is interesting because, you know, he does have this role as a state auditor where he is the person working with insurance companies, trying to, there's a lot of federal changes that insurance companies in Montana are following to make testing more affordable. You're waiving co-pays, waiving treatment. You need to see a primary care physician to have a test ordered. But the state has been really careful in talking about testing and trying to emphasize that there's not an unlimited number of tests available in Montana. You know, they're careful and they don't want to cause panic, making people think that there are no tests available, but there is limited capacity and doctors are trying to be pretty judicious with who is tested. They're following recommendations that look at if you're going to be in a hospital testing so that health care providers can be safe and wear protective equipment around you, but also not waste that protective equipment if you don't have COVID-19. So I think this is something that, I think, you know, I've talked to a lot of state officials; medical public health people this week have really tried to push out the message that you everyone can't just show up and get tested. And that would be great if we lived in a world like that, but that's not where we're at right now. So I think this email from Rosendale runs counter to the messaging we've seen from public health officials and state officials as well.

Mauk:Well, it's super important right now that state officials be putting out consistent messaging and accurate messaging. I'll leave that there.

Holly, there has been another late entry into the U.S. Senate race, and that's Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise, and she's entered the race as a Libertarian candidate, which is interesting since she is a lifelong Republican and former chair of the state Republican Party.

Michels:She was not holding back any punches this week. What happened is the Libertarians had a candidate up for the U.S. Senate who withdrew on the filing deadline, and a piece of state law let the Libertarian Party nominate someone else to run. And Susan Good Geise, she was that person. She really lit into Republicans, saying that she's tired of being called a RINO, which stands for Republican in name only. She said she's been a faithful party member since 1988, but that Republican leadership, she said, profanes what the party once stood for and said she just can't stomach that anymore. She went after Senator Steve Daines pretty directly for not holding in-person town halls, pointing out as a county commissioner, she's meeting with the public twice a week. She also said that she really doesn't support President Trump and she's pretty frustrated with Republicans that are just backing him, sort of what she's saying, is blindly. So it's pretty a interesting candidate. She didn't really talk much about why she's a Libertarian. It seemed like it's mostly that she's just really not with the Republican Party anymore.

Mauk:Rob, third party candidates in a tight election can actually sway the outcome.

Saldin:Yeah, sure. You know, this strikes me as another little piece of bad news for Steve Daines. Obviously, it was just recently that Bullock decided to jump into the race on the Democratic side and now looks like there's going to be a reasonably well-known Libertarian candidate running to. And, you know, Libertarians have often gotten, you know, somewhere around 4 percent of the total vote, and in a in a close election, that absolutely could make a difference. And you would assume, of course, that the Libertarian candidate would be pulling votes from the Republican. Of course it's never exactly a one to one thing. I mean, some people who would vote Libertarian would otherwise just not show up. And then some people probably would vote for the Democrat for one reason or another. But having a strong Libertarian candidate on the ballot is certainly not what Daines would have liked.

Mauk:Speaking of third party candidates, Rob, Montana Democrats have filed a complaint with the state commissioner of political practices, asking him to investigate who is behind the successful effort to get the Green Party on the ballot. They're running a bunch of candidates. We've mentioned before that the Green Party of Montana says it's not them. And a new law requires that groups spending more than $500 to qualify a minor party must register with the commissioner. But no group has. That's the complaint.

Saldin: Yeah. And obviously, what the Democrats think is going on here is is a cynical ploy on the part of Republican affiliated groups to go out and qualify the Green Party for the ballot on the assumption — it's the exact opposite of where we were just talking about with the dynamic between the Republicans and the libertarians, right? The idea here is that the Greens would pull away votes from the Democratic Party. And so to the extent you have people on the ballot who are to the left of the Democratic Party, that's helpful, beneficial to Republican candidates. And we do see this kind of thing from time to time. I mean, I remember back in 2012 we saw some efforts on the part of supporters of Jon Tester to help fuel the campaign of a Libertarian running for Senate that year, presumably with the goal of harming Denny Rehberg, the Republican candidate. And that was a pretty close election. The Libertarian did pretty well. And so these things can matter.

MaukFinally, Holly and Rob, none of us can really predict how the crisis of the pandemic is going to affect this election and voters' behavior. But it seems to me it could either suppress voting as people just try to focus on staying both physically and economically healthy. Or it could rally people to vote for change if they become convinced that the current people in power are failing them. What do you guys think?

MichelsYeah, I'm really curious to see how it goes. I mean, a lot of people that I've been talking to, you know, are talking about amping up, encouraging people to vote by mail, really, you know, pointing out the options in Montana that you have if you don't want to go to a polling place, and kind of trying to capitalize on, you know, if you don't like what you're seeing your government do right now, if you don't think they responded quick enough, that's a way that you can voice your concern in both the primary and the fall election. But I'm also hearing a lot of concerns about, when you look at people who staff polling places, they're typically those people who are kind of in those higher risk categories. They tend to be older Montanans. I think the term the governor used this week was legacy Montanans, which I thought was a nice way to say that. But I'm hearing concerns about that too from people who normally go to a polling place and that's what they're comfortable with and they're not quite sure about the risks associated with that this year.

SaldinThe honest answer is I have no idea. It's very hard to figure out where we're going to be a week from now, let alone in November. Things are changing so quickly.

MaukThere are so many unknowns in the current situation. But Rob and Holly, please take care and we will continue our discussion from a safe distance 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 in Mansfield, senior fellow Rob Saldin and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly micheal's and host Sally Mauk. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.

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.

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