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Campaign Beat: Greens, Guns And Preexisting Conditions

Montana's Secretary of State loses his battle to keep Green Party candidates on the ballot. New campaign ads focus on family and gun rights. The two candidates for governor release their health care plans. The national party conventions may hold little sway over Montana races. And Governor Bullock rebukes State School Superintendent Elsie Arntzen in their ongoing dispute over school masking policy

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

MaukHolly, when the state Supreme Court recently ruled to keep the Republican-backed Green Party candidates off the ballot we thought that was the end of it. But now Secretary of State Corey Stapleton plans to appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Is Stapleton a closet fan of the Green Party? What's going on?

MichelsYeah, so it has been a pretty hectic last couple of days. Like you said, the Montana Supreme Court did uphold a lower court decision that removed the Green Party from the ballot. People had asked for their signatures to be removed from petitions that qualified the Greens once they found out, like you said, the Republican Party financed that effort. On Thursday, which was the deadline for Stapleton to certify the ballot in Montana, he sent a three paragraph press release that morning saying that he was going to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also asked on Thursday for the state Supreme Court here to issue a stay on its own order trying to delay Stapleton from certifying a ballot that would include the Green Party. Stapleton argued if for some reason the U.S. Supreme Court accepted his appeal and did decide the Greens should be removed from the ballot, he could somehow cover up those names or something and just adapt the ballot later. That's how things shook out. But been lot of back and forth. We do now have the certified ballot. It does not include the Green Party, though Stapleton did include a little addendum in the certification document noting his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

MaukMy guess Holly is that federal justices will decline to hear the case.

MichelsYeah, it is pretty unlikely this appeal will get taken up by the Supreme Court just to start with. They really don't accept that many cases, except maybe 100, 250 of the more than 7,000 that they're asked to look at every year. There's also the issue of it might not be a case that they are able to review. They can't really review cases that just deal with state law. There needs to be a bigger federal issue there. And the lower district court ruling in Helena really only dealt with if Stapleton followed administrative duties that are laid out in state law. We haven't seen the state Supreme Court's full order, so we don't really know if they expanded to include in their deliberations something else. But as of now, it looks like this might not even be a case the U.S. Supreme Court could review.

MaukAll right. And meanwhile, as you said, the ballot has been certified and the Green Party candidates are not going to be on the ballot. So that's kind of the bottom line.

Rob in the Senate race Governor Bullock's campaign put out a new ad featuring the governor's wife, Lisa, and their three kids. Here's that ad.

[Bullock family]: I'm Caroline Bullock. I'm Alex. And I'm Cam. Our dad likes to talk about us. This time we're going to talk about him.

[Lisa Bullock]: They're teenagers. What could go wrong?

[Bullock family]: My dad loves Montana, it's where he grew up. He was raised in a single parent household and met our mom, Lisa, at the same school we go to go. Go Bengals!

I love fishing with him. I love running with my dad. He was by my side when I got my first buck.

We'll be hiking, then he'll always be like, "you know what's great? Every one of us owns these public lands.

I'm really proud of the work that he's done for our education system. He's been fighting in secret money in politics since before I was born.

[Lisa Bullock] Practically since he was born.

[Bullock family]I love teasing him. He's talking, he's like this ... He does not know how to whisper. [imitating] 'This is Steve Bullock.'

[Lisa Bullock] I hope they don't bring up the dance scene.

[Bullock family] He may not be a great dancer, but he is a great dad. He's doing the best job that he can for my generation and for the generations to come. And if you want to know what kind of senator he'll be, Just look at what he's done as governor.

[Steve Bullock] I'm Steve Bullock, and you bet I approve this message.

MaukThis ad Rob is funny and heartwarming and strengthens Bullock's image as an all around good guy.

SaldinYeah. Yeah. It's a welcome change, isn't it? It's a classic positive ad. It features his kids, obviously. It's funny and endearing. It has a light touch. It humanizes Bullock and reinforces the image he wants us to have of him as just a fundamentally decent guy who's like us. And it manages to do all of that on a personal level while also connecting to a couple policy issues; public lands and education that are important Bullock. So it's all just an effective reminder, I think, of why Montanans like him.

You know, Sally, perhaps not coincidentally, I noticed that a few days after this one popped, Daines put out a similar video of his own over Twitter, of his family, wishing him a happy birthday. That one's not an official ad; at least not yet. But I thought that clip also worked well for similar reasons.

As a general rule, I do think these kinds of ads are most useful when a candidate isn't well-known. So in the context of the big three Montana campaigns in this cycle, this kind of thing would probably be even more effective, carry more bang for the buck, for candidates like Matt Rosendale and Kathleen Williams, who are somewhat less well known, I think, than Bullock and Daines. And especially I mean, the one I think you could really benefit from this kind of stuff would be Mike Cooney, who's less well-known than all the rest. So relative to them, you know, name I.D., it's not a problem for Bullock and Daines, but it's still a welcome break from the barrage of negative ads that we've been seeing, which are all designed to run up disapproval ratings on your opponent. So these positive ads work to counter those negative impressions. And this one featuring Bullock family as it's just about as good as it gets on that front.

MaukMeanwhile, his opponent, Steve Daines, has a new ad that goes to a well-trod tried and true Montana attack, gun rights.

[Daines]: When it comes to the Second Amendment you have a clear choice. I'm a fifth generation Montanan who will always defend our Second Amendment rights. I'm endorsed by the NRA and received an A plus rating. They gave Steve Bullock an F. And here's why. Steve Bullock is ready to help Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden pass the most radical gun control laws in our nation's history. I'm Steve Daines and I approve this message because our Second Amendment rights must be protected.

MaukThis ad, Rob, shows Daines leaning on a fence with mountains in the background, looking very Montana. But I do wonder if touting the backing of the NRA plays as well now as it used to given the recent allegations of major corruption of the group's leaders. What do you think?

SaldinYou know, Sally, I tend to think this still works pretty well for Daines. And we knew this kind of thing was coming. You know, the one big downside to Bullock's run for president was that it forced him to move to the left on some issues; guns being the most notable. And, you know, that made all the sense in the world when you're trying to be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. But it's not necessarily best practices when you're trying to be the U.S. senator from Montana. The positions Bullock took on guns, it's just a little out of step with how successful Democrats in Montana handle the issue and how Bullock himself handled the issue prior to his presidential run. So I think it is a liability for him, and Daines is hitting him hard on it.

That said, of course, it's worth pointing out that Bullock's position in the presidential was far from extreme. He wanted to increase background checks, do red flag warnings, ban assault weapons. He also talked, I thought, pretty movingly, actually, about his nephew who was killed in a school shooting. But that's not something he talked about much before a presidential run. We could also say all those policy proposals are pretty mild stuff, particularly in comparison to what some of the other Democrats, I mean, notably, like Beto O'Rourke, were saying. So in the big scheme of things Bullock is well in line with public opinion on this issue. And yet, you know, Holly, I thought you made a great point, what, a week or two ago on this? You know, our debate over guns has just become so ridiculously polarized. It's entirely reasonable to be both a proud gun owner or a supporter of the Second Amendment while also supporting something like background checks.

MaukHolly in the governor's race, both candidates, Mike Cooney and Greg Gianforte, recently laid out their health care plans and both have the same goals to make health care affordable and accessible to Montanans. But they differ on how. And Cooney remains a staunch supporter of the Affordable Care Act, while Gianforte has been an opponent of the ACA, which now provides health coverage for tens of thousands of Montanans. That, to me stuck out is the main difference in their plans.

MichelsYep, I agree with you there. Cooney made really clear his support for the ACA and continuing Medicaid expansion in Montana. Medicaid expansion covers about 85,000 Montanans now, and is allowed for under the ACA. Cooney also made a point about talking about preserving protections for people with preexisting conditions. He said that he would like to see state law change, codify those protections within Montana law. He also stopped short of saying he would ask for a bill that would remove work requirements from the Medicaid program in Montana, but said he would support that kind of effort.

For Gianforte, he said that he recognizes the safety net Medicaid expansion provides in Montana, but he talks about wanting tighter asset and income verification on the program. I think something that's hard for Republicans to talk about this cycle is preserving protections for people with preexisting conditions. Gianforte points out he has co-sponsored and voted for bills that would protect coverage for people with preexisting conditions. But none of those have passed. So if the ACA were to be repealed or fall under some other mechanism, that provision would go away and people with preexisting conditions could be denied insurance coverage. Another difficulty for Republicans is President Trump's Department of Justice has filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to strike down the entire. ACA in a case that they'll hear after the November election. So that puts Republicans like Gianforte who support Trump in a difficult spot where they'll say they support protection for preexisting conditions, but at the same time the administration has asked in a brief for the Supreme Court to strike down the entire ACA, including that provision.

MaukRob, Democrats held their national convention this week with some memorable speeches about what's at stake in this election. And Republicans, of course, will hold their convention next week. Do you think these national conventions sway voters outside of the party base? What's their impact? Normally, and what do you think it will be in this unusual year?

SaldinThis is an unusual year, although one thing is consistent. You know, the thing that sticks out to me on the Democratic side is that these conventions are always a little tricky for Montana Democrats to navigate. Back in 2008 Brian Schweitzer gave a very memorable speech at that convention in Denver. But Schweitzer is the anomaly. Tester and Bullock have typically chosen to keep their distance from these things, I think, because they don't want to be associated too closely with the National Party. And we saw that kind of tension again this week from Bullock when he came out against the Democratic Party platform on the basis of oil and gas development and the death penalty and policing; basically saying on all those issues that the National Party is too far to the left. So clearly, Bullock is a bit uncomfortable with being tied too closely with those National Party figures, the people who Daines is very eagerly trying to tie him to. In fact, we saw that in that NRA ad we talked about earlier.

MaukWell, Holly state schools superintendent Elsie Arntzen sent another letter of complaint to Governor Bullock about school masking policy. She's feeling very left out. But the governor has sent her a sharp response.

MichelsYeah, we've talked about on this show before, this ongoing dispute between Arntzen and Bullock over how the directives the governor has issued; closure of schools in March, the mask mandate that earlier this month he extended to apply to public and private K - 12 schools, how each of their offices interact with each other over making those decisions.

Arntzen said that she feels like she has been cut out of the process. In Bullock's letter Friday morning he pretty clearly is accusing Arntzen of making statements to the press that contradict what he says is going on in the background. Bullock is saying he has sought-out ways to involve Arntzen and her staff in the process, and they've provided letters between the two offices that show there's been efforts to have some consultation there. In Bullock's letter he says that Arntzen's response has been to "stonewall privately and to claim publicly that you have been shut out. This is not a time for political posturing.".

So I think it was kind of coming to a head maybe. I think part of what's going on here is that under the emergency order Montana has been in since March, all these broad powers to make these decisions do fall to the governor and then, to some extent, the state health department. So it wouldn't be Arntzen who has the ability to make these choices. I think she is trying to say she wants more involvement. Bullock is trying to say, we've tried to include you. And I think this being an election year probably is part of why this has been such a high-profile dispute too.

MaukYou think?

There was a lot going on this week. Next week will likely be the same. And Rob and Holly, we'll talk to then. Thanks.

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.

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