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Campaign Beat: Debates, Scheduling Conflicts And The Quickly Approaching Primaries

Gubernatorial debates get testy as the primary gets closer. The race for attorney general features four experienced candidates. House Republican candidate Matt Rosendale emphasizes familiar themes in a new campaign ad. Democrat Kathleen Williams is the fundraising leader in the House race. And how former Congressman Ron Marlenee left a lasting mark on Montana's Republican politics

Listen now on Campaign Beat, with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

Sally MaukHolly, four of the five candidates for governor recently debated issues facing rural Montana, and one of the sharpest exchanges in that debate came between Republicans Al Olszewski and Tim Fox over whether the Confederated Salish and Kootenai water rights compact should be approved. And Olszewski says no:

"You know, I'm the only governor candidate in this whole race, Democratic or Republican, that is against the water compact. In 2015, I voted against it. It's unlawful, it's unconstitutional."

MaukBut Tim Fox was quick to correct Olszewski:

"Al, I'll stick to practicing law, and you can stick to practicing medicine. Very little, none of what you said is actually true: The state supreme court has upheld the constitutionality of the water compact. It's not illegal."

MaukAnd Holly, this is a contentious issue for some non-Indian farmers and ranchers in the Flathead and Mission valleys, and that is who Olszewski is appealing to.

Holly MichelsYeah, you're right Sally. This compact, it was ratified by the state legislature in 2015, and they've been waiting for federal action, the federal government needs to ratify it as well, and it is something Republicans are pretty divided on. Most of the opposition from Republicans we see in Montana are from Republicans in the Flathead Valley, where State Sen. Al Olszewski is from: He's based up in Kalispell.

We have seen, though, Republican leadership. Sen. Steve Daines, he brought a bill before Congress to ratify this. And U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who is also running in that Republican governor primary, has called Daines' bill a step in the right direction.

So Olszewski, like you said, among governor candidates, is the only one who who opposes it. And this exchange between Fox and Olszewski is one of the sharpest that I've heard in any of the forums that we've had for governor candidates so far.

An interesting thing to me is that Olszewski claimed, falsely, that this could open up opportunities for other tribes around the state to challenge water claims, and he mentioned the Crow Tribe specifically, which is something that's pretty important to Tim Fox, who grew up near Hardin and he's an adopted member of the Crow tribe. So that might have been a part of why his response was so pointed there.

MaukOlszewski also parts ways with all the other candidates over Medicaid expansion, which he continues to oppose.

MichelsYeah, I think we knew going into this all the Democratic candidates supported Medicaid expansion, but that was far from settled with Republicans. We've seen Attorney General Tim Fox and Rep. Greg Gianforte, in the past, in various ways and capacities, talk about the need to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is what allows states to expand their Medicaid if they chose to.

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

But Fox is saying now he's heard from rural hospitals that expansion is why they've been able to stay open over the last several years, and it's highly important at this time with COVID-19 to have those rural hospitals open. Fox is saying he doesn't fault past legislators for opposing Medicaid expansion, but that hindsight's 20/20 and it was wise to do so.

Gianforte is also saying now he sees the need to continue Medicaid expansion, but he's also saying that to do that, he wants to see increased asset and income verification when people sign up for the program.

But Olszewski, like you said, is still standing alone. He raised some concerns in a recent debate, saying that he worries it doesn't reimburse health care providers enough for the services they provide. But he has some proposals, but nothing really that he would replace it with if it were to go away.

MaukRob, Greg Gianforte caught flak for not attending this debate, citing scheduling conflicts. But it's not the only one he skipped.

Rob SaldinYeah, Sally, I suppose it's possible that he had some scheduling conflicts. The other thing that obviously strikes me is that if you're Greg Gianforte and you maybe think you've got this thing in the bag, you look at something like a debate and worry that, you know, what is there to gain, and there's potentially a lot to lose.

And so you do see this sometimes from candidates who think they've got the thing in the bag. And look, a lot of voters aren't necessarily going to recognize or care if they don't show up at the debate.

But, on the other hand, if the debate turns into a debacle, or they say something that's a gaffe, or they have a difficult exchange with another candidate or with a moderator, it could do real harm. And so, just in that cost-benefit analysis, you see candidates in Gianforte's position, or at least who think they're in Gianforte's position, frequently resisting the idea of debates just because there's little to be gained and much to be lost.

MaukAnd a lot of scheduling conflicts suddenly pop up, right? Democrat Whitney Williams, Rob, is also chiding her primary opponent Mike Cooney for skipping a forum on mental health issues, and for not responding to her new proposal to legalize recreational marijuana.

SaldinRight, Sally. So Williams has been more on the attack against Cooney, but it's still, in my estimation, pretty mild as far as these things go.

I mean, Williams' core message, which she's been very disciplined about sticking to throughout the campaign, is that it's time for new leadership and a new generation in Helena. So that's always been something of a dig at Bullock and Cooney, but it's pretty indirect and pretty mild.

And part of that is, I think, just because it's tricky for Williams, because Bullock, who of course Cooney is very much tying himself to, Bullock is quite popular, particularly with Democratic primary voters, the same voters that Williams is trying to appeal to. So there are real limits as to how much she can contrast herself with Cooney and Bullock, but I think it's just been a challenge for Whitney to draw the kind of distinctions that she would like, and that she needs to if she's going to win this primary without alienating Democrats who like Bullock.

MaukIt's clearly a fine line she has to walk there.

Holly, the race for state attorney general hasn't gotten as much attention as it should, both because it's an important office and because it's frequently, in Montana at least, a stepping stone to higher office.

And we have two Democrats, Raph Graybill and Kimberly Dudik, and two Republicans, Jon Bennion and Austin Knudsen, and all four of them arguably have the requisite legal and/or state government experience to hold that office.

MichelsThey do. This is a pretty qualified crowd.

Bennion has been in the A.G.'s office under Tim Fox for the last seven years, and he's really been a public face of that agency and involved in a lot of their higher-profile work. Knudsen, you know, he's been a state legislator, he was speaker of the state House when he last served in 2017. He's now county attorney in Roosevelt, and for about a decade was in private practice before that.

Then Graybill, he's the chief legal counsel for Gov. Steve Bullock, and has represented this state in some pretty high-profile cases, like a conservation easement case that came out of the state Land Board.

And then Dudik, state legislator from Missoula, she's also worked in the Attorney General's Office under Bullock. She's been a prosecutor, she's been an attorney in private practice and also a nurse. So a crowd that definitely is very familiar with the role of the attorney general.

MaukTwo of those four candidates, Holly, have the important backing of their mentors, and that's Raph Graybill, who is supported by Gov. Bullock, and Jon Bennion is supported by Attorney General Tim Fox, and that probably has to give each of them a leg up over the other candidates.

MichelsI think it does. You know, the support is a big deal in that race. I also think it's just elevated them so they've been a little more public than maybe some of these other candidates.

I remember back, almost a year ago in June 2019 at a Republican Party statewide gathering here in Helena, Knudsen gave a speech that was pretty critical of Fox's administration, and through that, Jon Bennion. Just saying they had, in his eyes, come up short quite a bit on, you know, stopping drugs, especially methamphetamines, from coming into Montana.

So I think it's, you know, a benefit to these candidates, but also gives some of their opponents ways to try to point out some shortfalls with their previous work, too.

MaukRob, in the U.S. House race, Republican Matt Rosendale has a new campaign ad, and let's listen to that:

"A lot of folks in government go along to get along. Then you've got fighters like Matt Rosendale, who's not afraid to shake up the system.

"As state auditor, he cut operating expenses 23%, and refused a pay raise every time. Rosendale lowered health care premiums and passed the bill to lower drug costs. That's why Matt Rosendale's the only candidate for Congress endorsed by President Trump and A-rated by the NRA. Shaking up the system. Conservative results. That's Matt Rosendale."

"I'm Matt Rosendale, and I approve this message."

MaukAnd this ad, Rob, mentions Trump and the NRA, and has, what struck me anyway, as a very aggressive tone.

SaldinYou know, I think it captures Rosendale's strengths, at least in so far as getting the Republican nomination is concerned. As I see this, the basic dynamic is that coming out of the Senate run against Jon Tester two years ago, Rosendale just has a lot more name recognition than any of his opponents. And that leaves Rosendale and in a very strong position.

And it seems like his campaign is approaching this as though he's the clear front-runner for the nomination, and if that's how you perceive the situation, which again, seems entirely reasonable to me given what we know, the key is basically just to remind Republican primary voters who Rosendale is, and to trot out his brand and to put that on display.

And part of that is, I think, that aggressiveness and you know, you're right, Sally, as we see the visuals in that. You see the Trump endorsement via tweet up on the screen, you see shots of one of the president's appearances here in Montana with Rosendale there at his side two years ago. There's some gun shooting, you know, the A-rating from the NRA and so on, and a lot of those visuals, I also notice, I'm pretty sure are from stock footage from that Senate campaign from two years ago.

So all of it, I think, is designed to have this kind of ring of familiarity that, you know, this is somebody who we know and hopefully, for the sake of his campaign, somebody that we like and want to see there up against a Democrat for a seat in Congress this fall.

MaukHolly, in that House race, Democrat Kathleen Williams continues to outraise all the other candidates, including Rosendale. The most money doesn't always win, but it's still noteworthy.

MichelsYeah, I think, and we've talked about this on this show before, it's something that we look to with a lack of a lot of good publicly available polling in Montana, is how candidates are doing with fundraising.

And Williams still is leading in that race, and opened up the space between her and Rosendale a little bit. In their most recent reports, she brought in about $486,000. Rosendale brought in just about $250,000, and that does leave Williams with more cash on hand. She's got about $1.2 million. Rosendale has about $985,000.

The rest of the candidates on both sides are trailing pretty significantly. I think they're struggling a lot with the coronavirus, and just how that's changed campaign season.

MaukFinally, Rob, an influential Republican in Montana politics, and former eight-term Congressman Ron Marlenee died this week at the age of 84. He served in Congress from 1977-1993, when Montana lost one of its two House seats and Democrat Pat Williams beat him for that remaining seat.

But Marlenee remained a galvanizing figure in Montana politics well after he left Congress.

SaldinYeah, he sure did, Sally. You know, he started as a rancher and a businessman from Scobey, up in the northeast corner of the state, before going back to Congress. He didn't have any elected experience, but ended up serving eight terms back in Washington for that second district, the eastern part of the state, basically everything east of the Rockies.

And you know, to me, he embodied that classic Montana conservative of the '70s running through the '90s, you know, less government, less taxes. I mean, we still see these themes, of course, but he really embodied that. His campaign slogan, also, at least in those early years, was "One of us for U.S. Congress," which has that kind of populist appeal that I associate with his brand of Western Republicanism.

One thing that struck me just in looking back over his career this week was that he never really faced a truly competitive election in the second district. I mean, he was winning those things by 10 points most of the time, and a couple times by, like, 30 percentage points. And he probably would have kept on representing that second district for a long time, Sally, as you say, had it not been for that redistricting after the 1990 census when Montana lost its seat.

And so it went to this statewide thing, and he had that real showdown with Pat Williams, who'd been representing the western district for over 10 years. And it was very close: Williams ended up beating him by just three percentage points. It was by far the closest election either of those guys ever had.

But yeah, I mean, you're totally right. Marlenee was a key figure in Montana politics for the better part of two decades, and he remained very active in the Montana Republican Party even after he left Congress.

MaukAs we've mentioned before, Montana could gain back that congressional seat lost in the early '90s depending on the outcome of this year's census, so we'll see how that plays out.

Campaign Beat is 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, and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and host Sally Mauk. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.

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