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Attack Ads, Voter Turnout And The Republican Party's Future

There's still time to get your ballot in before Tuesday's primary, but you'll need to deliver it in person. Voter turnout could be heading to a new record for a primary. New ads in the Senate and gubernatorial races follow political playbooks. Democrats seek to increase Native American participation. And some key primary races could set the future direction of the state Republican Party.

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

Sally MaukHolly, the state Supreme Court this week overturned a district court ruling that would've allowed mail-in ballots to be received up until June 8. And the high court said, no, mail ballots have to be received by the June 2nd primary date to be counted.

And it seems like the central issue was whether some voters would be disenfranchized. But the Supreme Court says, no, they won't be.

Holly MichelsThe question here was raised by two Democratic groups in district court in Billings, and they were saying that because of how mail works in Montana, people might not understand how early they need to mail their ballot to get it in.

You know, Helena here, for an example: My ballot goes from my house to a processing center in Great Falls and then to the courthouse here. So it took about three days for that process to happen, and they were worried that, just, this is the first time the states asked everyone to vote by mail because of the coronavirus, and that people might not understand how that timeline worked.

Normally for, when we have absentee ballots in a regular election year, those have to be in, like you said, by 8 p.m. on election night to be counted. So there was some back and forth last week, but the high court settled it. If you are voting, and you're listening to this right now and you haven't mailed your ballot in, you should probably drop it off because there's probably not enough time to get there by mail.

This is still now going to go through an appeals process in district court in Billings before the general election in November, so we might see some more news about this as we go through this year, but for now, the state Supreme Court made very clear ballots need to be in June 2nd by 8 p.m.

MaukRob, over 40% of the mail-in ballots have already been returned, and that indicates we could be headed for record turnout, meaning a record number of ballots turned in for a primary election.

Rob SaldinYeah, exactly, Sally. So, as of today, we've already got 285,000 votes that have come in, and that's only 8,000 less than the all-time record. So I think absolutely we should hit that with several days still to go.

You know, one thing that always comes up about turnout is the extent to which that favors one candidate over another. And the debatable conventional wisdom here is that primaries favor candidates who are more ideological, and the idea being that, because turnout is so much lower in primaries than it is in generals, that those who do turn out are the ones who know more and care more about politics, and that such people tend to be more politically polarized.

But, and this is a big qualifier here, there's considerable debate among political scientists about the extent to which it's really true that primary electorates are more ideologically extreme, and to somewhat crudely summarize all of that work, the evidence suggests that the conventional wisdom is, at the very least, less true than is commonly thought. So as a practical matter, the advantage that the more conservative Republicans and the more progressive Democrats would get in a primary is somewhat less than we assume.

But even so, you might say that, for instance, in our primaries for governor, where we really do see some ideological space between the candidates, that this primary electorate dynamic would have a modest benefit for Gianforte over Fox on the Republican side, and for Whitney Williams over Cooney on the Democratic side. To the extent, then, that we have a higher than usual turnout in the primary, that would dilute those advantages for the more ideological candidates.

And in Montana, because we have open primary elections, it's probably even more diluted, because independents are allowed to vote in one primary or the other. So, while I suspect that candidates like Fox and Cooney are probably happy to see those higher-than-usual turnout figures, whatever advantage they really gain from that will probably be less than the conventional wisdom would have us believe.

MaukHolly, Sen. Steve Daines has a new ad out that is following the Republican playbook nationally. Let's listen to the ad:

"China lied about the coronavirus. Now over 30 million Americans are out of work. Nancy Pelosi's plan gives $6,000 government checks to illegal immigrants."

"Sen. Steve Daines is fighting back. The Daines plan: hold China accountable and bring manufacturing jobs home. Ban immigration while our economy recovers. Cut burdensome regulations for small businesses. Protect Montana jobs."

"Steve Daines: strong leadership we can trust."

MaukAnd, Holly, this ad attacks China, Nancy Pelosi and immigrants, and those are the big three if you're a Republican running for reelection this year.

MichelsThey are, Sally. Like you said, there's a memo that came out from the National Republican Senatorial campaign, sort of a playbook for Republicans on how to handle coronavirus and China. And this ad kind of touches on a lot of points that that memo advised candidates on how to message the framing.

You know, it gets away from any critique of how the U.S. or President Trump might have fumbled our own response to the coronavirus and shifts that blame onto China. So instead of having to defend the president, you can instead go on the attack.

The ad we heard, it talks about saying China lied about the coronavirus, and then equating that to job loss in the U.S., which I also think is interesting to note, not talking about lives lost, but the economic effect. Both are difficult to talk about, but, you know, the economic impact is probably a little bit easier to engage with voters on.

Like you said, quick pivot to Nancy Pelosi, who Republicans have been casting as a villain for some time now. It talks about this bill that the House has with these stimulus check benefits. It would go to people who are here illegally but pay taxes. It talks about the maximum those households could get, $6,000, but it's those $1,200 stimulus checks that we've talked about before here.

The ad says that Daines' is plan is to hold China accountable, and there is consensus that the Chinese government didn't quickly report out maybe some of the severity of the coronavirus, and that's cost other countries time. But, you know, other countries, including the U.S., have also fumbled their own responses.

And this ad doesn't go quite as far, but Daines also had an op-ed that ran in newspapers around the state this week, calling for the secretary of state to investigate what he says are the origins of the outbreak, which is a little bit of a dog whistle to claims that have been made, and pretty generally debunked, about that this virus perhaps generated in a Chinese lab and either escaped or was leaked from that.

It's something that there's really not evidence to support, and even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had been making this claim, has backed away from it.

You know, this ad doesn't really talk about, policywise, what holding China accountable would look like. It then does move to this immigration ban that Daines is talking about, again echoing President Trump there. And that's something where we've even seen groups like the National Farmers Unions say that blocking immigrant workers, you know, farm and ag laborers, would actually cause disruptions in a food system that's already seeing some supply chain issues.

It is an ad that's pretty along the Republican playbook and just kind of shifts away from things that might be difficult for Republicans to talk about in an election year.

MaukRob, the American Bridge PAC has a vicious new ad attacking gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, and they're going after him for not being more accessible. Let's listen to that ad:

"Where's cowardly Greg Gianforte? If you're a Montana voter, he's nowhere to be found."

"Greg Gianforte hasn't held a single in-person townhall while in Congress: 'Congressman, it's clear that you were social distancing long before the pandemic hit.'"

"He skipped debates: 'U.S. House Rep. Greg Gianforte has declined this debate.'"

"He's ignored voters questions: 'Do you agree with your running mate that Bullock's 11-day order protecting people from eviction is wrong?' 'Umm, I haven't made a comment on that."

"And, when breaking news happens, Greg Gianforte is nowhere to be found. Even fellow Republicans have had enough of no-show Greg and his cowardly ways."

MaukAnd this ad features Gianforte's chief Republican rival, Tim Fox, and it has an image, Rob, of Gianforte peeking out from behind a desk.

SaldinAnd a pretty good one liner from Fox. You know, this American Bridge PAC is affiliated with Democrats, and so the timing on this is a little interesting.

I assume that they're kind of looking towards the general election, assuming that Gianforte will win, rather than trying to help Fox, who I think conventional wisdom at least holds, would be the more difficult opponent for whoever comes out on the Democratic side.

You know, but look, on the substance, I mean, I'm definitely more skeptical of the sanctity of these town halls than a lot of people are. The reality is that these things have devolved from their intended and noble purpose of allowing elected officials to hear directly from average citizens.

The reality is that the people who show up to these things, they aren't representative of citizens in general, and we've seen, in recent years, at least nationally, a lot of these things turn into just kind of "gotcha routines" that are intended to embarrass the elected official.

And, you know, some people are going to thrive in that kind of a situation better than others, and I'm just not at all convinced that that lines up with how effective you're going to be as a public servant. You know, it's as much a performative theatrical thing as anything else, so the supposed purity of these forums is very questionable.

But that said, look, these town halls, they have a place in our political culture. And so, as a political matter, it doesn't look good to be avoiding those forums. And Greg Gianforte is getting hit hard on that in this ad, and it probably is all the more effective here, with regard to Gianforte, than with regard to other political figures who've been skipping out on these things, because, with Gianforte, it just dovetails with this image that's out there of him as being this aloof billionaire.

And so, I think that probably is something that's going to resonate with voters. Whether that's an entirely new message or not, or just reinforces it a little bit, I'm not sure. That image, that caricature of Gianforte, has been out there for a long time, so it might already be kind of baked into the cake.

MaukHolly, the state Democratic Party put out a press release this week touting a new effort to recruit more Native American candidates and leaders, and announcing that their upcoming platform convention will feature the first two Native American women elected to Congress, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland and Kansas Congresswoman Sharice Davids.

Native Americans in Montana traditionally vote Democratic, so what do you think this is about?

MichelsYou know, I think it's a way ... party chair Sandi Lucky said that what they're trying to do is engage Native Americans in Montana year-round, not just on election cycles when they're making those pushes.

Like you said, you know, if you look at reservation counties or pockets of the states have high Native populations, they typically vote pretty strongly Democratic: All but one of the state legislators who's part of the Native caucus is Democrat. So they're trying to say that these are communities in Montana that have been overlooked. They deal with economic, social, just all these societal challenges that the rest of the state isn't struggling with as much, and Democrats are saying this is a way to try to work a little harder on addressing those issues and getting better representation.

MaukThe Montanans Free Press, Rob, had an interesting article recently about how this primary election could impact the future direction of the Montana Republican Party.

And the article points out there are at least a dozen Republican legislative primary races that feature members of the so-called "Solutions Caucus," and these are legislators who helped Democrats pass Medicaid expansion, and they're being challenged by more conservative Republicans who would be far less likely to compromise with Democrats.

So this primary could really have a tremendous impact on the future of the state party, and also on how the next legislative session goes.

SaldinYeah, for sure, and this is definitely the thing I'll be watching at the legislative level.

It's pretty fascinating, this Solutions Caucus. They've gone by different names, but they've been the key swing bloc in the most recent legislative sessions. And I think they just have a more pragmatic flair to them, relative to the rest of the Republican caucus, the majority of the Republican caucus, which is more populist, more pure in their anti-government conservatism.

It's been the Solutions Caucus that's worked with the Democrats in the past for a number of high-profile things, Medicaid expansion, budget, etc. But the majority faction within that Republican caucus has been very upset with the Solutions Caucus people for joining with the Democrats, and they vowed to defeat them here in the primaries, as they've done in previous election cycles.

MaukA reminder to everyone that the primary is this coming Tuesday, and if you haven't already mailed your ballot in, you can still drop it off in person at your county elections office. You have a few days to still do that.

And Rob and Holly, we will reconvene in a week to break down the election results. Thank you.

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.