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Campaign Beat: Big Money Is Pouring In To Montana's Elections

Outside PAC money is pouring into Montana's races for Senate and governor - one indication of how competitive those races are. But money isn't the only factor, which gives some underdogs hope. Gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney gets criticized for participating in a campaign call in his state office. Absentee ballot collection remains a contentious issue. And Montanans likely aren't as leery as the president when it comes to voting by mail.

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

Sally MaukRob, Newsweek magazine this week wrote about how much outside money Montana's high-profile Senate race is going to attract, with both Republican and Democratic super PACs promising to spend tens of millions of dollars in the race between Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Steve Daines.

It's no surprise that race is attracting big money, but the projected amounts are kind of staggering.

Rob SaldinRight. Yeah, Sally. You know, the one that caught my eye was the Senate Leadership Fund, which is a GOP PAC. They put in $10 million for an ad buy that's going to run through the fall.

It clearly demonstrates that national Republicans are really concerned about Daines' standing in the race, and, as you suggest, Sally, it's just another indication that a switch got flipped when Bullock jumped into this thing. You know, what was set up to be a sleepy Senate campaign and a cakewalk to reelection for Daines has turned into one of the country's most competitive and most watched contests.

MaukAnd Rob, candidates sometimes, like Gov. Bullock, pledge they aren't going to take any campaign money from super PACs. But how meaningful is that pledge when those PACs can get involved easily without the candidate's consent?

SaldinYeah, I mean, it's the kind of thing that sounds good, but doesn't have a whole lot of meaning behind it because these Super PACs can do whatever they want. They don't need Bullock's permission, and in fact, it's against the law for them to work together, right? If they were coordinating their efforts, that's not allowed. And so, you know, regardless of Bullock's position on that, I think we're going to see a lot of outside money to support Daines, but also to support Bullock for sure.

MaukHolly, Montana's governor's race is also attracting some outside money. We learned this week that a group affiliated with EMILY's List, which works to get women elected, has bought a $700,000 ad in support of Democrat Whitney Williams. Here's the ad:

"The Smith River: A Montana treasure and an economic driver. But now a Canadian mining company will put it all at risk. When it comes to our public lands, Whitney Williams is the clear choice for governor. Whitney Williams will fight to stop the Smith River mine, and she'll stand up for all our public lands. Whitney Williams, the public lands choice for governor.

"Paid for by WOMEN VOTE! Denelle Robinson. WOMEN VOTE! is responsible for the content of this advertising."

MaukAnd this is a slickly-produced ad, Holly, and although it doesn't mention Williams' opponent, Mike Cooney, by name, it's an implicit criticism of him.

Holly MichelsYeah, this does repeat a message that Williams has really been emphasizing as we're getting closer to the primary. And public lands is obviously a huge issue for Democratic voters, especially Democratic primary voters in Montana. And Williams has been really critical of Cooney for the approval of this copper mine that's near the Smith River.

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

And we talked about this before, but it's a bit of a stretch to say that Cooney, or the Bullock administration he's a part of, is somehow the entity that's granting the permit of this mine. Those are issued based on if an applicant has met requirements through the Department of Environmental Quality. But it does give Williams this way to appeal to more progressive primary voters.

Something that I think's pretty interesting is the magnitude of this ad buy: It was nearly a $700,000 purchase. And, the day before we're recording this, I was going through campaign finance reports, and you know, it had felt like to this point, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte in the Republican primary had been the real big spender on TV ads.

But this single buy is more than Gianforte had spent up to about mid-May on TV ads total, so pretty significantly sized ad buy as we're getting close to June 2nd.

MaukIt's significant, but it also comes well after over 100,000 Montanans had already voted. You have to wonder about the timing.

MichelsYeah, it is pretty interesting. I think it's a little weird. I think everything about this primary feels a little weird, you know, since we are voting primarily by mail this year. You know, ballots really should be sent in by probably May 26. You know, you can push it a little depending on where you are in the state. But this ad started running May 19th, which was well after ballots reached people.

I was checking the morning we recorded this, and already something like 32% of ballots sent to Montanans have been returned, which is a turnout of about 28% of registered voters. If you look at the 2016 primary, turnout was around 45%, so at this point, we could have seen already about two-thirds of votes that will be cast already sent back.

So, it is a little bit interesting timing, but I'm seeing a lot of other candidates up on the air pretty heavily, too, so maybe there will be last-minute push or maybe we'll see people voting at elections offices, but fair to say a decent chunk of people have already voted and returned their ballots.

SaldinOn the EMILY's List, just one quick point. You know, this isn't the first rodeo for EMILY's List. $700,000 is a big drop of money, and you don't do that idly. And while the conventional wisdom seems to be that Cooney has a little bit of an edge in this one, you know, I look at that move from EMILY's List and conclude that they at least think that Williams has a real chance to win, and that something like this ad buy could push her over the mark.

MaukFor sure, they wouldn't be giving her money if they didn't think she had a chance.

Mike Cooney got into some trouble this week, Holly, for using his lieutenant governor's office to participate in a campaign-related call, and it's illegal to use state facilities for anything campaign related. Republicans have filed an official complaint about it, and Williams says it shows Cooney has been "a career politician for far too long."

It does seem, Holly, like kind of a dumb thing for Cooney to do, but do voters really care?

MichelsThat's a question I wish I knew the answer to, Sally. I'm not sure they do very much, or it's something they track very closely. But like you said, Republicans filed a complaint.

I also saw the Williams campaign, you know, say in fundraising emails that he'd done this, trying to make the points you just did, that he's been in politics too long. It is something in 2000 Cooney was accused of, but the Commissioner of Political Practices determined that he did break state laws, but of something similar, which I think the Williams campaign has brought up, too. So, again, like you said, it's not a great look, not ideal. Cooney's campaign said that this doesn't happen, you know, it just, he was in between meetings, you know, dealing with COVID-19, and didn't have time to get elsewhere to sit through this meeting. So, again, I don't think it's something voters watch real closely, but not a great thing to be doing either.

MaukRob, the latest fundraising figures show Williams and Cooney are about even in the Democratic primary fundraising race, with both having raised close to $1 million so far. But in the Republican primary race for governor, it's no contest. Greg Gianforte has far outraised his two opponents, Tim Fox and Al Olszewski, and a big chunk of that money comes from his own deep pocket: $1.5 million.

SaldinRight, Sally. And $500,000 of that just came in this week, putting his total to $1.5 million. He's also raised $2 million on top of that, so that's $3.5 million total. And by contrast, Tim Fox, the attorney general, has raised about $750,000, and Sen. Al Olszewski has raised $350,000. So clearly a big edge in fundraising for Gianforte.

MaukBut even though he's also far out raising his opponents in money raised from individual donors, he's open to the criticism, Rob, isn't he, that he's trying to buy the governor's office? That's certainly the line that Democrats are going to hammer, and have been hammering, all through the primary campaign season.

SaldinWell, and in fact, dating back to four years ago, right? This has been one of the knocks on Gianforte. So, yeah, and it probably does have some legs. It feeds into this image of Greg Gianforte as an outsider, as a carpetbagger and all of that.

Now, I think if you're Tim Fox here, even while you've got this big financial disparity, you've still maybe got a thread to hang on. You know, first you've got to hope that that image of Greg Gianforte continues to resonate with Montanans. And, you know, I do note that Gianforte does have this kind of record of underperforming relative to where a generic Republican should be. And so, if you're Fox, you hope that plays out again.

You've also got to assume, reasonably so, I think, that perhaps Dr. Al will pull some conservative votes that would otherwise be going to Gianforte. And then finally, if you're Fox, I think you need to hope that a lot of independents, and maybe even some Democrats, choose to cast a Republican primary ballot this cycle instead of the Democratic ballot. And as we talked about last week, there's, you know, at least some anecdotal evidence around the margins that at least some people are making that calculation.

MaukHolly, two years ago, Montana voters passed a referendum to limit how many absentee ballots a person can turn in from other voters to just 6 ballots. But this week, a judge granted a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of that, and voting rights advocates and Native American tribes are happy with that ruling.

MichelsYeah, this lawsuit was filed before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Montana. It's felt even more timely after that, with physical distancing measures. But, like you said, ballot collection has always been a big part of how people are able to vote on Montana's reservations.

One of the groups that filed this lawsuit, Western Native Voice, said in the 2018 midterm, they returned ballots for about 850 people on the state's reservations. And they did that with just about a handful of people collecting those ballots, so they definitely wouldn't have been able to, even before physical distancing became something we all needed to do, you know, able to collect that many ballots with just, you know, a staff of maybe a dozen.

So, you know, the judge that issued this restraining order, she said that this law, if it was in place, would have irreparably harmed Native voters in Montana. There is going to be a hearing set for May 29th on this, which I don't really think will affect the outcome of this primary, given that the vote is June 2nd, that's when ballots need to be dropped off by.

But of course, it could have significant meaning for the November general election, depending on what comes out of that hearing and how big of a role, you know, ballot collection could play in Native turnout. So I think people will still be watching it pretty closely, not so much for effects on this primary, since I think it won't be enforced and won't have much of an effect even if a judge reverses that temporary restraining order, but it could have pretty big impacts in November.

MaukWell, Rob, this whole issue of people collecting absentee ballots, it fits into President Trump's ongoing criticism of mail-in voting, which he, without any proof, believes leads to massive voter fraud. There's been no evidence of that in Montana, and I wonder how many Montanans, most all of whom will vote by mail this election, share his concern. What do you think?

SaldinWell, yeah. So a little interesting backstory here, Sally. In the early days of vote by mail, the conventional wisdom was actually that it benefited Republicans because it made it easier for older and rural voters to cast ballots. But in more recent years, we have seen, definitely, Republicans opposing the push to vote by mail. And now here more recently, Trump has been kind of saying the quiet part out loud, that the reason for the opposition is because it would make it harder for Republicans to get elected.

But political scientists have actually studied this, and the basic takeaway is that it's not at all clear that there's a partisan advantage one way or the other. And based on the available data, it just seems like it's basically a push. So one prominent theory about why Trump is so out-front on this issue has actually less to do with real concerns that it would advantage Democrats, and more with a broader effort to de-legitimize the election.

But regardless, Sally, I mean, I think Montanans are pretty used to vote by mail. In a lot of other states, you know, it's much more of a novel thing, but we've got a long tradition of it. So while there's certainly a segment of people who would probably follow Trump wherever he leads them, concerns over vote-by-mail should, I would think, have less traction here than perhaps in some other states that are just less accustomed to it.

MaukJust a reminder, as Holly mentioned earlier, those ballots have to arrive in the respective election offices by June 2nd, so people need to be getting their ballots in the mail pretty soon. That's less than two weeks away.

And Rob and Holly, thanks, and I'll talk to you next week.

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.

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