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Polling Shows A Tight Senate Race; Gubernatorial Candidates Gets Testy

A new poll indicates Montana's U.S. Senate race will be a dogfight. The race for governor gets testy. And two new ads focus on abortion as a major campaign issue.

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

Sally MaukA poll released this week by Montana State University shows Governor Steve Bullock leading Senator Steve Daines 47 percent to 40 percent in that Senate race, and that's within the poll's margin of error. But the seven point lead is actually higher than I would have expected and I'm guessing surprise a lot of people, including Senator Daines.

Rob SaldinYeah, and including me. You know, I was a little surprised to see Bullock up and up by that much and also to see Daines all the way down at 40. That's definitely lower than I would have thought. But Sally, I think it's really essential to make the point that you did there and to understand that when we're looking at polls like this there's always this margin of error. And in this case, it's about four and a half percent. So that means that this poll is actually telling us that it's just as likely that Daines is up a couple percentage points as Bullock is up by 7, as the poll actually shows. That's just how all polling works. When you take the views of a small subset of people and try to extrapolate to the larger population, and this is one reason, of course, why you'd always feel a lot more confident about where things stand if you had several polls to go by rather than just one. But that said, one is absolutely better than none. And these things take a lot of money to pull off. So we're fortunate to have what we have.

You know, one thing that strikes me is that Bullock's lead here could reflect something that we're seeing nationally, that it reflects his response to the pandemic. As we've discussed, governors across the country have seen their poll numbers shoot up as a result of this. So maybe that's part of what we're seeing here, that Bullock is getting a bump. But bottom line, my takeaway on this is that this poll just lends support to what we've thought was going to be the case since Bullock jumped in several weeks ago that this Senate election should be very close and that it will attract a lot of national interest and a lot of money.

MaukWell, speaking of that money, Senator Daines is likely also not happy about a new ad campaign begun this week by a liberal Super PAC known as the Senate Majority PAC, and they plan to spend $700,000 on ads attacking the senator. And here's the one that's airing now.

"Maybe you're worried about your job or where your retirement went after the crash. But Senator Daines worries about corporate profits. Instead, Daines gave trillions in tax breaks to big corporations, but pushed cuts to Medicare. Opposed emergency paid sick leave and even tried to limit unemployment benefits for those thrown out of work by the coronavirus. Maybe it's time for a senator who worries about you.

"SMP is responsible for the content of this ad."

MaukRob, Sen. Daines disputes some of the assertions in this ad, but the theme of he's looking out for rich folks and not the little guy is a common and sometimes effective Democratic strategy against Republican candidates.

SaldinYeah, Sally pretty tough ad right out of the playbook, but in the midst of a pandemic, these lines of attack could really resonate even if Montana hasn't been hit hard yet by the coronavirus, at least so far. This ad is from an outside group and I think we'll be seeing lots of this outside Super PACs looking to help Bullock by running ads like this one that goes after Daines and then Republican affiliated groups looking to do the opposite by attacking Bullock. The one big limitation that these Super PACs have is that they're prohibited from directly coordinating with the candidates campaigns. So they have to devise these messages on their own. But these groups are unlimited in terms of the money they can raise and the money they can spend. So we should all probably brace ourselves for a steady diet of this kind of thing through November from both campaigns, no doubt.

MaukHolly, the gubernatorial debates last weekend had some testy exchanges between both the Democratic and the Republican primary candidates. And Democrat Whitney Williams has become increasingly critical of the Bullock administration and by association her primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney. And Cooney clearly doesn't like it. Here's an exchange they had over whether the current administration has done enough in its eight years to help Montanans struggling with everything from mental health to affordable housing.

Whitney Williams: "How much longer do you need to help solve some of these problems? This is a crisis and it's been a crisis since you've been lieutenant governor."

Mike Cooney: "You know, it's so easy to blame other people for these things, Whitney. And I know that it's easy to do. Frankly, I think it's a bad thing when Democrats are beating up on other Democrats, because what you're really saying is that the Democrats and our Governor Steve Bullock, have failed the people of Montana. And I just don't think that is a good way to, to proceed in this election, especially in this Democratic primary."

MaukAnd I get Cooney's point Holly, but criticism comes with the territory if you're trying to win a primary. You can't have hands off on your opponent.

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

Holly MichelsI think at the start of this race we saw a lot more fighting on the Republican side of this. On the Democratic side of this primary was a lot more harmonious here. The campaigns were talking about how they would see each other at events when we used to have in-person political events and get along and joke around with each other. But like you said, Sally as the primary gets closer, candidates are trying to show why they're the better choice in this primary. And that will result in these exchanges like we saw in that debate. For Williams, because Cooney has such a long record, there's things that she's trying to pull out of that and the more recent ones during the Bullock administration where she's focusing. And these attacks are interesting to me because they're adjacent to Cooney, but none of them are really things that he's had direct control over. You know, I think what Williams is trying to go for is an appeal to maybe the more progressive wing of the party who tend to be the people who show up in primaries, pointing out sometimes where they might have been frustrated with what they see or shortcomings of the Bullock administration. But Cooney's pushing back, making the point that Democrats need to be united. They're going to face a pretty strong battle in the general election against whoever the Republican is to come out of that. And he's saying now is not the time to draw divisions within the party.

MaukArguably, the tensest exchanges came in the Republican primary debate when Congressman Greg Gianforte didn't like Attorney General Tim Fox calling him out for not engaging enough with Montanans.

Greg Gianforte: "Let me just say, Mr. Fox's behavior is shameful. It's shameful because he's trying to manipulate and use false statements to manipulate voters. And I'll just leave it at that."

And then later, Fox went after Gianforte today for some slimy campaign tactics.

Tim Fox: "Congressman, it's clear that you were social-distancing long before the pandemic hit. You ducked debates and forums, refused interviews with the press, avoided open public meetings and tough questions, and instead used your considerable wealth to try to buy this election instead of earning those votes. You have used your surrogates to attack me and you've even called one of my supporters and told him that he shouldn't support me because I have cancer and might get sick while in the governor's office. That's appalling."

MaukEven with the bars reopening Holly, I don't think these two are going to be sharing a drink anytime soon.

MichelsNo, I don't think so. This primary, I mean, since the day Gianforte announced, Fox has been attacking him. And those attacks, have you shifted and been refined a little bit as we've gone along, but they're about the sharpest I've ever seen at this point, which like we were just saying, makes sense with the primary less then a month away. Fox is trying to, and for a while has been centering around this idea that he's the honest candidate who has integrity and trying to chip away at Gianforte, saying he doesn't have those qualities. And this claim that Gianforte's campaign has used Fox's battle with cancer against him is kind of the most solid way he's been able to articulate that argument.

Just to lay out a few things: Fox was diagnosed with cancer and has been cancer free since about 2018. And the claim that came up in this debate is something that's hard for us as reporters. I don't know if much coverage of the debates included it because it's something that is alleged to have happened in a phone call conversation, which is really hard for us to verify as we're reporting. But it is a way, Fox had the closing arguments in this debate, so we did hear that clip you played. Gianforte pushed back against Fox a lot harder than we've heard him do during this campaign. He's tried to be pretty hands-off and say he's above this attacking other candidates and he just wants to talk about himself as a candidate. But he did push back a little bit. But Fox had the last word in this debate, so Gianforte didn't get a chance to respond.

MaukRob, there are a ton of new campaign ads out now for all the major races, but two in particular stood out to me this week and both of them were focused on the issue of abortion. Here's a new ad from Whitney Williams, one of the Democratic candidates for governor.

Williams Ad: "Women are Montana's trailblazers. They're the mothers and daughters who built this state. But now women in Montana face a serious threat. Extremists like Greg Gianforte and Donald Trump want to take away our right to choose, even restrict birth control. I won't let that happen. I'm Whitney Williams and as your next governor, I'll protect women's health care decisions in Montana. I'll stop any law that comes between a woman and her doctor."

MaukRob, Williams has consistently promoted her feminism and advocacy for women. But this well-produced ad seemed to me more aimed at the general, not the primary election. It mentions Greg Gianforte, who may or may not be the Republican opponent in the general. But it draws no distinction from Mike Cooney. Her primary opponent, who shares her pro-choice views on abortion.

SaldinWell, true. It definitely doesn't draw a direct contrast with Cooney, who she obviously has to defeat before she gets to take on Gianforte or whoever emerges on the Republican side. And as you suggest, I think one reason for that is that there's just not really any discernable difference between Williams and Cooney on abortion, at least so far as I can make out. And so there's just not much to mind there. But despite that, abortion is still an absolutely key issue for a lot of Democratic primary voters, especially, though not exclusively, women. So I think it actually still works pretty well as a primary ad in that it reminds Democrats what the stakes are for an issue they care a great deal about and links Williams to that issue as a champion of abortion rights. And if the ad helps on that front, it probably serves its purpose. And and actually, I think abortion in some ways actually works better in primaries than in generals because in the general election version is sometimes just more tricky because it's not just something that pro-choicers care about. A lot of pro-lifers are highly mobilized by the issue, too. But in any event, yes, you know, she can't hammer away at Cooney and draw a clear distinction between the two of them on this issue. But the ad does link Williams to a policy issues that people she's fighting for right now care a lot about.

MaukHolly, the other ad that spotlights abortion comes from the Republican attorney general candidate, Jon Bennion, who opposes legal abortion. And here's an excerpt from that ad for Jon Bennion.

Jon Bennion ad: "Pro-Life isn't just a campaign talking point. Jack Bannion, Jon's son, is living proof of that. Jack was born as a 23-week micro preemie, weighing just one pound. For Jon Bennion, it's personal. While his opponents stood with Planned Parenthood, Jon Bennion has been standing up for vulnerable Montanans. And Jon Bennion will protect us because that's what he's done as Montana's chief deputy attorney general.".

MaukThis ad Holly implies that Bennion's primary opponent, Austin Knudsen supports abortion, which he does not. But the personal story of the ad is effective, I think.

MichelsYeah, Austin Knudsen, the former speaker of the state house, did push back against this ad. He took to his campaign Facebook page to say Bennion isn't telling the truth and that Austin was pointing out he has a 100 percent rating from the Montana Family Foundation, which is a very conservative group in Montana that is very opposed to abortion. I think you're right, it is a very powerful and really personal ad. You see a lot about Bennion's family in there. And I think ads like that can resonate a lot with voters in some of these tier B races that don't get a lot of coverage, you know, with the media facing challenges with its short staff and a lot of other things going on right now. Ads like this are something that you might reach voters really well and let them know who the candidate is.

MaukWell ballots were mailed out today. So these campaign ads are going to be coming fast and furious over the next few weeks. Rob and Holly, we'll talk about those then.

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.

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