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Montana Candidates Highlight Flip-Flops, Public Lands And China

New ads in Montana's U.S. Senate race target the candidates' election year flip-flops. And candidates in the Senate and gubernatorial races try to make the case that they're the best steward of Montana's public lands.

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

Sally MaukHolly, it's interesting in any campaign season to see what candidates choose to emphasize in their campaign ads and in the Senate race between incumbent Steve Daines and Governor Steve Bullock. Daines ads emphasize how tough he will be on China, who he blames for spreading the coronavirus to the U.S. and for stealing American jobs. But Democrats Holly are quick to point out that Daines has a long history of cozying up to China and even lived there for a while when he worked for Procter and Gamble.

Holly MichelsYeah. Daines is following this, there is a playbook distributed to Republican senators from the National Republican Senatorial Committee in April, sort of guiding Republican senators on how to blame China for the coronavirus and also frame Democrats as being soft against China and saying Republicans won't be. It's, for me, what I'm seeing it as is a way for Republicans to avoid having to defend the Trump administration's own response to the virus. We've seen the lack of any sort of plan at the national level. Things like testing capacity have a very real effect here in Montana. And like you said, Sally, Daines is a little more interesting, I think, than some of the other senators to look at, because he does have this long history with China. You know, worked for Procter and Gamble there helping that company expand into the market. As a senator, you know, he also has really pushed for exporting Montana beef to China and has made a handful of official trips to the country as a senator. You know, Daines' his campaign has been asked by reporters to respond to this shift in his rhetoric, but they haven't really offered any explanation or gotten back to reporters at all with comments. And like we said, Democrats are really seizing on this, calling it a flip flop. Just this week, the Senate Majority PAC, which is spending a lot of money in Montana already, announced seven figure ad buy, attacking Daines, again on China, arguing that he can't be trusted.

MaukWell, here's a new ad from the Montana Democratic Party critiquing Daines history with China.

Narrator: "The love story between Senator Steve Daines and the Chinese government began in the 1990s. While Daines was helping a big corporation start factories in China, American workers at the company were getting laid off. Then when Daines got to Congress, newspapers called him China's cheerleader for his pro-China agenda. Chinese officials hailed him as their ambassador in Congress. Daines even praised China for having aggressively worked to contain the coronavirus. Call Senator Daines and tell him, you represent Montana, not China. It's time to stand up for us."

MaukHolly, I'm not sure where they found that angry narrator, but this ad, Holly, implies that Daines' current criticism of China is an election ploy.

Yeah, I think we've seen Daines in the past, not in this election cycle, kind of push back on some of the claims that ad has made. He's tried to say his role was expanding into the Chinese market and that what he was doing in China didn't cost any jobs in the U.S. But it is accurate to say that both of those things, job losses and his time in China, happened at the same time. This ad paints a little bit of a different picture than some others. This is more sort of saying Daines can't be trusted to be tough on China, which is, you know, Republicans are saying that they're doing. So, slightly different narrative, but still continuing this Daines-China connection that I think we're going to see play through as long as this election lasts.

MaukHolly, if Daines has flip-flopped on China, a new ad by the senator accuses Gov. Bullock of a major flip-flop as well, and that is on whether he even wants to be a U.S. senator. Here's the ad.

News clip: "Governor Steve Bullock says there's no way he's running for the Senate in 2020. He said multiple times, unequivocally, no. He does not plan to run for Senate."

Bullock clip: "I've said it before. I've said it during. I said it when I got out. So, yeah, I'm not running for Senate."

Interview clip: "You don't want to be a senator? You're worried about that race? How are you thinking?"

Bullock: "No, Rachel, this wasn't an either-or. Like, I was never gonna run for the Senate. This is something that never really got me excited."

News clip: "Bullock has said on many occasions he has no interest in doing so."

Interview clip: "Would you rule out a run for the Senate at some point?"

Bullock: "And I would. I mean, I rule it out. And I have ruled it out."

News clip: "Our top story this morning, Governor Steve Bullock, has announced he is running for the U.S. Senate. A recent push from top Democratic leaders may have convinced him to run."

MaukAnd the ad ends, Holly with the caption, "You can't trust Governor Steve Bullock."

We knew this ad was coming, but it's very effective, I think, at showing Bullock's change of heart on running for the Senate. He was adamant for months that he was not going to enter the race.

MichelsI think you're right that it is effective. Ads like this make me really happy I'm not a TV reporter showing up in them. But I remember writing all those stories too, about Bullock saying over and over and over again that he wasn't going to run for Senate. And to be able to, as, you know, as Daines can do here, point out that his opponent as a job applicant has said that he didn't even want the job, does make for a pretty effective ad. I do think, you know, pundits in Montana who were a little skeptical of Bullock swearing off a Senate run, who kind of thought all along he was going to jump in have used Marco Rubio in Florida as an example. He joined the Senate race in 2016 and won his seat again after a presidential bid. But really interesting to me is those pundits are saying Rubio had this entrance into the race where he had some leeway after the tragic Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida. After that happened, Rubio used that event and said it gave him this moment to take pause and think about where he could be most useful to his country, and that was as a senator.

It's just really interesting to look back at March in Montana. Bullock ended up joining the Senate race just four days before Montana had its first four coronavirus cases. But that really wasn't a moment for him to enter the race. The two things really weren't related at the time. They weren't discussed about together. Bullock never framed it that way. But just the timing of that is interesting to look back at, though. He said use reason for running is he wants to make D.C. work more like Montana. But all that said, I mean, I think Bullock's reasoning isn't going to matter to voters who this ad's effective on. I do wonder, I think it would have been, this ad would have been, more effective if we weren't going through a pandemic. I think there's, you know, a lot of things for people to worry about right now. And you look at news stories that were a huge deal five months ago that people don't even remember happening now. But it still does let Daines point out that his opponent didn't want the job.

MaukI'm not sure I remember what happened five days ago at this point.

We've talked a lot, Holly, about how health care is a major issue in all the top races. But now we're also seeing some environmental issues being emphasized. All the candidates know that Montanans care about the environment and they all want to portray themselves as good stewards. This week, Governor Bullock filed a lawsuit to keep William Pendley from heading up the Bureau of Land Management. And that's because Pendley has in the past been a strong advocate for privatizing public land.

MichelsYeah, I think, you know, like I said, Pendley is a pretty controversial figure in Montana. And the other thing to be looking at is this is an election year. Bullock's Senate opponent, Daines, he sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that will review Pendley's nomination to run BLM. That nomination came at the end of June after all these maneuvers for about a year that have kept Pendley effectively heading that agency without being nominated or going through the confirmation progress. You know, Pendley was the lead for the Mountain States Legal Foundation when that group fought for a developer's claim to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine near Glacier, which is considered sacred by the Blackfeet. Daines' campaign pretty quickly called the lawsuit a political stunt in an election year. Spokeswoman for Daines' Senate office wouldn't say if he would support Pendley or not, but did say he would have some tough questions for him if he came before a committee hearing. Pendley's nomination does put western senators like Daines in a bit of a tough spot. And for Democrats this past week, they've used that to kind of take away from some of the boost that those senators have gotten from getting that great American Outdoors Act passed through the House.

MaukThis week did see Congress pass the Great American Outdoors Act, and it permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and that's something conservationists have been fighting for for decades. And Senator Daines, Holly, is undeniably a key figure in getting it passed and getting President Trump to sign it. Democrats want to point to Daines' past votes on environmental issues, but this is clearly, I think, a major accomplishment for environmental advocates that Daines can take credit for.

MichelsI think you're right there. It is a really big win for him and he took a leadership role in getting it through. And, you know, this puts $900 million annually, like you said, to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The permanency gives groups around Montana who for really long advocated for this funding a lot more certainty in projects that they're planning. Democrats have tried to critique a little bit the timing of this, saying it's happened in an election year and that's convenient for Daines. But his office is able to point back, I think, pretty effectively that, you know, Democrats have not been able to get this done in the past. So overall I think this is a pretty big win for him. And I think groups around Montana have been pretty, pretty supportive and appreciative of it finally getting passed.

MaukCongressman Greg Gianforte has also come out in support of the Great American Outdoors Act, but that hasn't kept his opponent in the governor's race. Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney, Holly, from blasting Gianforte for a stream access lawsuit Gianforte filed way back in 2009. Cooney is bringing that whole issue back up again in the governor's race.

MaukYeah, Cooney has gone really hard on public lands. Over the last week or so he announced his plan to protect public lands, which mostly calls for backing or increasing existing programs. But that gives him a chance to bring up, like you said, Gianforte's lawsuit from back in 2009 that was trying to block access to a fishing site near his Bozeman home. Cooney even went down and held a press conference at that fishing access site after he announced his public lands plan. It is like you said, it's a part of the playbook that Democrats used to beat Gianforte in 2016. But I'm curious to see how effective it will be this year. Gianforte, Cooney also tried to attack him for not cosponsoring the Great American Outdoors Act. But Gianforte did speak on the floor in support of it and vote for it. And I don't know how much, you know, not cosponsoring it argument will mean to voters who aren't tracking these things very closely. I think the shift to public lands has been an interesting one. There's been some timing with some legislation and like the Great American Outdoors Act going through Congress. But it's also hitting right now. If you take a look at this state this summer, you'll see how much public lands matter to Montanans. Campgrounds are full, fishing accesses are really busy; hiking trails. There's just a lot of demand as the pandemic has shifted a lot of people's activities. So probably a good time to be talking about that as people are really accessing those lands right now.

MaukIncluding myself. I have to say. And I wonder, Holly, if voters are going to have short memories and focus on where candidates are now versus where they've been in the past, or whether they're going to see these as election year conversions. I think that's one of the interesting questions.

MichelsI think it is, like you were saying, things that happened a week, two weeks, three weeks ago, it's hard to remember. I'm looking at stories that I wrote in March that I have no memory of even writing. So I think people tend to be a little bit short term memory and probably a little bit more this year with just everything happening.

MaukWell, our colleague Rob Saldin was off this week, but will be back with us next week. Thanks for carrying the load holly. And I'll talk to you 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.

What are "Montana Values"?

Every campaign season, we hear a lot about “Montana Values.” Things like liberty, opportunity, and love of public land. Ideas that supposedly define Montanans. But when elections come around, that language seems to do just as much to drive people apart.

For our elections coverage, our news team wants to know what values matter to you, and how candidates are talking about them in the run up to November. What do you think of when you hear “Montana Values” - and why?

Call us at 406-640-8933 and leave a message to share your thoughts.
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