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Greens Are Out, Mail Is In, Sales Tax Fearmongering Returns

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

There will be no Greens on the November ballot, and that ballot will likely be mailed in. Montana is falling short on the census. A new poll shows Republicans ahead. And a new campaign ad plays on Montana's historic hatred of a sales tax.

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

Cole GrantNext up: Campaign Beat, a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio. Campaign Beat is hosted by Sally Mauk. It features Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and University of Montana political science professor and Mansfield Center fellow Rob Saldin. Here's Sally.

Sally MaukHolly, District Judge James Reynolds this week has thrown the Green Party off the November ballot in Montana, and mainly because it wasn't really the Green Party. And the deception disqualified some signatures that got them on the ballot in the first place.

Holly MichelsYeah, so this was a challenge that the Montana Democratic Party brought in District Court here in Helena, and we just got this ruling from Judge Reynolds a little bit ago.

But what happened is the Montana Republican Party ultimately financed the signature gathering effort that qualified the Green Party for the ballot this year. But that information wasn't really publicly available when people were out with petitions gathering signatures to get the Greens on the ballot.

The Greens were certified for the ballot March 6, and then sometime after that was when newspapers, TV stations around the state reported that it was the Republican Party that paid for that effort.

So once that became public, the Democratic Party reached out to as many petition signers as they could get in touch with, and tried to get as many people as possible to ask to withdraw their signatures from that petition. And enough people ultimately did.

And what Reynolds found is the way that they asked for their signatures to be withdrawn was compliant with state law and the withdrawal requests should be honored; that the petition effort no longer met the threshold needed to keep the Greens on the ballot, so they're back off the ballot.

This is the second time in two years that the Green Party has been removed from the ballot after a challenge from the Montana Democratic Party. The Democrats, you know, they face an uphill challenge to get candidates elected in Montana anyway in some of these races, and having a Green Party candidate on the ballot could siphon some votes away from Democrats.

So Democrats probably pretty happy to see this news, and we’re unsure if there's going to be any sort of appeal or not. But as it stands now, the Green Party is back off the ballot in Montana.

Mauk Rob, Gov. Bullock this week said Montana counties can choose to have an all-mail election this fall, and I'm guessing most, if not all, will make that safe choice just like they did in the primary.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I think so Sally. So, I mean, the upshot of this is that we're going to have basically a replay of what we saw in the primaries. And, you know, one of the implications of that is that it does make voting easier, so we could see a little bit of an uptick in turnout.

Mauk And does that favor one party over another, large turnout?

Saldin Traditionally, you always think that higher turnout favors Democrats because Republicans are more likely to actually show up and cast a vote. And certainly that's going to make it easier on the urban areas and the reservations where Democrats need to do well.

But, you know, we're also hearing a lot now about – with President Trump struggling – that Republicans are worried that there could be depressed turnout among their voters. And so to the extent that voting is easier this year, you know, that might kind of push against what otherwise could be a little bit of a depressed Republican turnout.

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

Mauk Holly, Gov. Bullock also this week formally objected to the census deadline being moved up a month, and Montanan’s participation in the census right now is low.

Nationally, we're one of the lowest states in terms of how many people have turned in their census information, and that has all kinds of bad consequences for Montana.

Michels So, yeah, Montana does have a lot to lose with this moved-up deadline, and there's a really real potential for an undercount here.

The state gets about $20,000 in federal funds for every resident counted, and we also have the potential to gain a U.S. House seat if enough people are counted in Montana. At this point, we've counted maybe about half the state's population, so quite a ways to go.

The deadline was moved up to Sept. 30. It was at the end of October. You know, Montana’s a hard state to count in a non-pandemic year, and this year, the census got off to a late start in Montana because of the coronavirus.

But one thing the Census Bureau does is they don't mail invitations to participate to P.O. Boxes/rural route addresses, which is a large part of the state. Another thing that we're struggling with this year is that college students are pretty hard to capture. You know, you're supposed to be counted where you were living April 1; That's when colleges were shut down and students were moving back home.

That could really hurt places like Missoula and Bozeman. Bozeman is on the cusp of maybe hitting 50,000 people on the census, which is a pretty big threshold for more funding.

So we saw the governor, we also saw Sen.s Tester and Daines, ask for the deadline to be put back to Oct. 31. Sen. Tester said this week he thinks that the Senate might extend the deadline where the Bureau needs to get final data to the White House – which hopefully could put this deadline back for counting people in Montana until October – so we'll see how that effort goes.

Mauk Rob, a new poll by Emerson College had some good news for Montana Republicans with their candidates leading in the congressional and gubernatorial races. I think the surprise in that poll, at least to me, was Sen. Steve Daines leading Bullock by six points in the Senate race. Other polls have, Rob, shown that race is a tossup, so a six-point margin is a big difference.

Saldin Yeah, it is Sally, although that's still within the margin of error. Margin of error on that poll was 4%, so still within the margin of error.

It does also, though, show Greg Gianforte over Cooney by nine points, which is just outside the margin of error.

You know, I'm aware of another recent internal poll by a reputable outfit that shows both of those closer, both within the margin of error. It also has Matt Rosendale with a very slight lead over Kathleen Williams in the House race.

So, yeah, you know, these are just single polls. I mean, my takeaway is that it reinforces kind of what we already knew: All of these are relatively close – they could still all go either way. But it looks like as of now, the Republicans are in a little bit of a stronger position in that gubernatorial race than they are in the two congressional campaigns.

Mauk Meanwhile, Rob, the Senate Leadership Fund, which is a Republican PAC, has announced another multi-million dollar ad buy in the Senate race.

They are really pouring money into Montana to try to get Daines reelected.

Saldin Yeah, they sure are Sally. Montana is among five states that are getting another big infusion of cash, and Georgia and Montana are getting a lot more than the others.

One thing that was interesting to me is that Colorado and Maine are not on that list, which may mean that Republicans have decided that those may be out of reach and are funneling their money back to some of these, including Montana, that they think are still highly competitive.

Mauk Holly, in the state attorney general race, Republicans are once again trying to get Democrat Raph Graybill thrown off the ballot. They argue he's ineligible for the office, and this is the second attempt, but a different tactic.

Graybill is running against Republican Austen Knudsen, and you have to wonder if this effort is being made because Republicans think Knudsen is in trouble in that race.

Michels Yeah, that is how Graybill’s campaign characterized the move from Republicans this week, and a comment they provided for stories that me and other reporters wrote about this.

The claim is – it's the same thing Graybill his Democratic opponent was making in the primary – and they're trying to say that Graybill isn't qualified to run for office because he hasn't met a requirement of being an active lawyer in good standing in Montana for five years before the election.

The commissioner of political practices weighed this same issue in February of this year, and he found that there was insufficient evidence to support that claim. Graybill was admitted to the Bar of Montana in September 2015, so by the election, that would be five years.

The commissioner found that that constituted being a lawyer in good standing in Montana, even though during that time Graybill did practice law in Seattle. Republicans are trying to say that you needed to be practicing law in Montana.

They're also calling into question time that Graybill spent clerking for a federal judge here in Montana, saying that doesn't count as active practice. The Supreme Court asked for a response from the Graybill campaign, which is due on Aug. 10, so we'll see how they respond to this and what the court does moving forward.

But it is something that previously, earlier this year, the commissioner of political practices did deem an insufficient concern.

Mauk Finally Rob, in the governor's race, Democrat Mike Cooney has a new digital ad out claiming Republican Greg Gianforte would support a sales tax if elected. And here's part of that ad:

Ad“If you're hungry, if you have a new baby or need a new set of tires, if you've gotta buy almost anything, you're not going to want Greg ‘Gian-fort-tax’ as governor.”

“Wait, isn't it ‘Gian-fort-ay?’”

“Nope, Greg Gian-fort-tax, ‘cause Greg pushed for a sales tax on nearly everything Montanans buy. Greg Gian-fort-tax called his sales tax ‘an ideal solution for Montana.’ Of course, Greg's a multi-millionaire who's also said: ‘The fairest tax is the one you pay and I don’t.’”

Mauk Greg “Gian-fort-tax,” is cutesy label Rob, but this ad is misleading.

Saldin Yeah, I think so, too, and it's definitely not the most sophisticated formulation. It kind of has all the refinement of a half-baked schoolyard taunt.

But in campaign politics, it's often the most simple and blunt messages that stick in people's minds.

And the politics of it, I suppose, may work well for Cooney. You know after all, people don't like paying taxes, and Democrats have been using this line of attack now for several cycles: They hit Rick Hill with it in his campaign for governor against Bullock eight years ago, did the same thing against Gianforte four years ago.

But it is misleading in the sense that Gianforte, you know, whatever he may have said nearly 20 years ago, he knows the politics of this issue and has unequivocally stated that he's opposed to a sales tax. So there's always been a little bit of a straw-man quality to this allegation.

Mauk The ad actually steals some Republican thunder, doesn't it, Rob, accusing the Republican candidate of wanting to raise your taxes? That's usually the Republican attack on Democrats.

Saldin Yeah, it sure is, so it upsets that familiar narrative and I think that's why it's appealing to Democrats.

You know, but on the substance of the matter, I mean, there's a damn good case to be made that a sales tax is something we should seriously look at. Montana politicos – and especially Democrats – talk about this in a kind of demagogic way and act as though the very idea of a sales tax is an unthinkable atrocity. But nearly every other state has a sales tax, so we're the oddballs on this.

And now there is a legitimate objection to a sales tax in that it's regressive, but there are also obvious ways of addressing that concern. You can exempt necessities like groceries for example.

And there's just a huge upside to a sales tax in a big tourism state like Montana, in that you get a lot of out-of-state visitors who contribute to the tax base, right? As it stands now, we have to fund everything through income and property taxes. Well, if you put a sales tax in place, you could offer some relief to Montanans in those areas and shift a significant chunk of our tax burden to tourists.

Nearly every other state has figured that out and has a sales tax, so it's perhaps a little unfortunate that we have such a crude “gotcha” way of discussing the sales tax issue in this state.

Mauk In Montana, the phrase “sales tax” is an obscenity, though. Still.

SaldinIt is, yeah. Oh for sure, it's a third rail. And, you know, nobody has the courage to talk about it because they just get killed in ads, like this one from Cooney.

Mauk Holly and Rob, summer is rushing by. Hopefully we'll all get in some more hikes and floats, and I'll talk to again 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