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Campaign Beat: Lawmakers Clash Over Rules, Candidates Clash Over Veterans Issues

Democrats charge Republicans with shenanigans over the meeting of a legislative rules committee,  Montana Republican candidates get a boost from Vice-President Pence and new ads in the U.S. Senate race feature veterans.

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

Sally Mauk Holly, Republican members of the Legislature's Joint Rules Committee met this week without their Democratic members who boycotted the meeting and accused their Republican colleagues of a, quote, brazen partizan power grab. What is going on with this committee?

Holly Michels Yes, there is a lot to unpack here. And Democrats, like you said, it didn't attend this meeting over their concerns. They said it was illegitimate and they didn't actually end up having a quorum with House members. This is a committee of both House and Senate members. So without the Democrats there, they weren't quite at full quorum.

Democrats raise concerns. One of their concerns saying it was an illegitimate meeting is that they're saying the Joint Rules Committee can't meet in t his capacity. Its lawmakers that normally meet during the session to form the rules that govern how the legislature works. And they do meet outside of the session but that that's normally after the general election. And just before the upcoming session. So its lawmakers from the upcoming session, not past ones. That's part of their concerns.

The other concern is they claim one of these proposed rule changes, which would create something called legislative proclamations, is an attempt by Republicans to have the ability to either object to or undermine Gov. Steve Bullock's emergency orders, which includes one Democrats are focusing on that let counties choose if they wanted to hold the November general election by mail.

Republicans on this committee push back against that claim. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas said in one story that this proposal had nothing to do with voting by mail. And in another story, he said that what this would do is give the Legislature an avenue to weigh in on things, like national issues before Congress, when they're not in session. But then in another report by the Montana Free Press, Thomas said that the rule changes they're proposing would allow them to bring a resolution he said would, quote, close the emergency off, referring to that directive. So unclear at this point. The committee is set to meet again this upcoming Thursday where we might see a little more. They couldn't really do anything, take much action without a quorum, but kind of see where it goes in the next week.

Mauk Rob, Vice President Mike Pence headlined a rally in Belgrade this week, drumming up enthusiasm from President Trump and Montana Republican candidates, especially Senator Steve Daines, whose reelection is key to Republicans keeping control of the Senate. It was a typical stump speech meant to fire up the base. I'm not sure we learned anything terribly new or anything terribly newsworthy about it, except that it was, you know, of course, the vice president in Montana.

Rob Saldin Yeah, right. I don't think there is anything particularly notable about the rally itself. It was pretty standard fare. But clearly, Daines was thrilled to have him here and it served its purpose for Daines. It was another reminder of Daines' close ties to the Trump administration, and that's the centerpiece of his pitch for a second term. Yeah, you know, there was one real kind of fly in the ointment aspect to Pence's visit, which was that they had to cancel that Bozeman fundraiser that we talked about last week that was going to be hosted by the QAnon people. So that was a bit of an embarrassment. But I suspect that on balance, Daines is still really happy to have had the vice president in the state.

Mauk Well, hundreds of people attended that rally and most of them not wearing masks or social distancing. This is, of course, against the advice of health officials. One rally attendee thinks the pandemic is overblown. Here's what she had to say.

"There are also thousands of other things that are taking people's lives. For example, people aren't going to stop eating McDonald's even though that's affecting their health."

Mauk I'm not sure, Rob, that eating a Big Mac is on par with contracting a potentially fatal virus.

Saldin Well, I wouldn't think so either. But, you know, I think that's a sentiment that is relatively widespread amongst Republicans. That seems to be where a lot of them are out at this point. And all of this has just become so politicized. And you've got a lot of Republicans who seem to be taking their cues from Trump, who, of course, is back to holding his rallies. And those certainly don't feature much in the way of safety precautions. In fact, I think publicly ignoring those precautions has become something of a signaling mechanism. So I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of this in the closing weeks of this campaign.

Mauk Holly, both Senator Daines and Governor Bullock have new ads on the air that feature veterans. And here's part of the new Bullock ad, which has several Montana vets criticizing Daines for voting against funding for new veterans home in Butte.

[voice montage]: We needed this home because we have a lot of veterans here ... And it's time we say thank you ... New Veterans Center in Butte ... In the making for decades ... 60-bed retirement home for veterans ... The government do not have money. But Governor Bullock negotiated the budget of Montana to get money to start the project ... It was a critical difference ... Governor Bullock stepped up to the plate and did everything he could to make this happen ... Steve Daines was one of the people who voted against that ... He voted against it. And that was critical to a small state like this ... He hasn't backed many veteran issues ... But then, of course, when it came time to break ground, he was the first to run out there and get his picture taken as if he did.

Mauk To be fair, Holly, Daines isn't the only politician to show up for the groundbreaking of something he voted against.

Michels Yeah. So this is, I think, pretty much, you know, definitely an effective ad. But like you say, in a story about this ad, a Marine from Butte, who was a part of this effort, said that this veterans group agreed to invite Montanans entire delegation to the groundbreaking when the home was finally started construction. So, he said it wasn't a political deal, more of a veterans issue.

But I do think this ad points out something like veterans issues are pretty big deal. Montana elections and Bullock in the 2019 legislative session, along with two Butte Democrats secured funding. That was pretty key to getting this project started. And as this ad points out, Daines did vote against it. It was an omnibus spending bill in 2018 that had federal funding component for the home. So I think for Bullock this to be a pretty winning issue. But like you said, it's kind of just, this is how politics works sometimes, too.

Mauk Well, the new Daines ad, Holly, features Butte native and former Navy SEAL Rob O'Neill, who claims to have fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. Here's that ad.

[news clip]: Osama bin Laden has been killed ...

[O'Neill]: "As a SEAL team. We were willing to die when we went in to kill Osama bin Laden. The last thing Osama bin Laden saw was the American flag on my shoulder. Right now, the far left wants to burn that flag. They loot our cities. They assault our police officers. Democrats tell Montanans what they want to hear and then they go to Washington and do the bidding of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. We need leaders in Washington with the values to keep this country great. That's why I'm supporting Steve Daines. Love of country. The need for service. Those are Steve Daines' values [Rifle shot]."

Mauk The ad ends with Daines firing a rifle, presumably not at bin Laden. What's interesting about this ad, Holly, is O'Neill is a controversial figure himself.

Michels Yeah, he is. Like he said this ad, he's a former Navy SEAL who claims he's the one who shot and killed Osama bin Laden. Since then and since entering the spotlight, he has had some high profile issues with alcohol, DUI. He in August was kicked out of Delta Airlines for refusing to wear a mask during the pandemic. So maybe an interesting choice. But I do think here for the people that Daines is trying to reach for this ad, O'Neill is probably a pretty popular figure in that crowd. I do think this ad's interesting because it's kind of the veterans issues ad, but then not really. O'Neill talks about the far left wanting to burn the U.S. flag and loot cities, which isn't something that's happening here in Montana. Talking about assaults on police officers. Feels like to me, this is all just more tying into a national narrative, which we've talked a lot about on this show before, Republicans nationalizing Montana's races. And it's come up a lot in this race already, too.

And that imagery at the end, you know, it's stuck out to me, too. Daines shooting a gun. He's walking with some men who appear to be veterans. And you hear O'Neill saying over that Daines his values are love of country and the need for service. But I think this ad is a lot less about where Daines stance on veterans issues and more about nationalizing the race and kind of engaging in this sort of culture war that we're seeing. That's a big part of the presidential race, too.

Mauk Rob, in the governor's race, Democrat Mike Cooney had another good fundraising quarter and his campaign is touting a poll showing the race is a toss up, but with Republican Greg Gianforte slightly in the lead. But Gianforte still is the frontrunner in that race and still way ahead in the money race.

Saldin Yeah, you know, Cooney did have some good fundraising numbers here, you know, and I think he might be benefiting a little bit from the fact that this is definitely the most competitive gubernatorial election in the country this cycle. But, yeah, I, too, am a little skeptical that this one is within a single point, which is what that poll that the Cooney camp has been pushing pretty hard in recent weeks shows. The other polling I'm familiar with shows that it's a little bit of a wider gap. And my, just, general sense is that Gianforte is pretty confident at this point.

I think if you're Cooney, though, there are a couple reasons to hold out hope. One is that just that the national environment is really good for Democrats this cycle and that could carry some people along. The other thing, giving Cooney some hope is a Gianforte has just always underperformed relative to where a generic Republican should be. He's never gotten those big victories that Daines and Zinke and Rehberg have. So he's managed to win two of three elections, but at least up till now, Montanans just haven't fully embraced the guy. So we'll have to see whether that pattern continues or not this cycle.

Mauk The Shared State podcast, which is produced by the Montana Free Press and Public Radio, recently focused on Cooney and Gianforte's differences on abortion and gay rights. And those differences, Rob, could not be more stark between those two candidates.

Saldin Yeah, for sure. I mean, there are real differences here and those are absolutely things that could come across the governor's desk. I think it's all but certain that Republicans will have majorities in both legislative chambers come January when the next session starts. That wouldn't signal a change in terms of the makeup of the legislature, but there's been a Democrat in that governor's office for the last 16 years standing in the way of some of that kind of socially conservative legislation. But if Gianforte wins, it would obviously be a very different story, really different.

Mauk Finally, Holly, you recently did a profile of the two candidates in the state attorney general's race between Democrat Ralph Graybill and Republican Austin Knudsen. And Graybill has his first ad out in that race. Here's that ad.

[Graybill]: "There's a lot of noise out there, but it shouldn't be complicated. The attorney general should be independent. My opponent is a partizan extremist who said he'd rip away health care protections and sell off our public lands. I'm Raph Graybill. I've fought to protect our public lands and I won. I've sued the feds and won. I will be an independent watchdog. I'll protect our health care and I'll stop the price gouging on prescription drugs. It's that simple. Now let's enjoy some quiet."

Mauk And this ad ends with Graybill and his family outdoors enjoying the sunset. And this race, Holly, offers clear contrast and approaches, I think, to the office of the A.G..

Michels Yeah, I think of all these down ballot, tier-b races this is the one that really features candidates who are really clearly articulating the differences between themselves. And like you said, you see all the obvious typical differences between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to ideology and policy. But there's also this real difference in what each candidate thinks the function of attorney general job should be. For Austin Knudsen, he really embraces the idea of the job as the state's top law enforcement officer. He talked a lot in our interview about the dangers of methamphetamine that come into Montana brought by Mexican cartels, how it's tied to an increase in crime in this state. He really wants to focus on going after that, giving prosecution assistance to local county attorneys. And while the AG's office doesn't control budget for local prosecutors and law enforcement, he wants to find ways to help out there.

Graybill, on the other hand, he really sees the office as a way to be an advocate for Montanans. And the avenue he has identified to do that is by engaging the state when it comes to lawsuits and legal battles he thinks could make real changes for Montanans. He sort of sees the state's Constitution as this document he wants to bring life to, and courts is kind of the way to do that. He talks about what he says is picking fights to address things, from the cost of prescription drugs to what he thinks is too large old money in politics.

Knudsen does think there are some places where he could see entering into litigation like that. He's looking at opportunities related to maybe lawsuits about the U.S. border with Mexico or the Second Amendment. But for the most part, he's really focused on the law enforcement side of things.

Mauk Here's hoping that the smoke will soon clear both politically and physically in the valleys here. Holly in Rob, thank you very much. Contact again next week.

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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.

Listen now: Shared State

Montana’s 2020 election will be among the most contentious and closely watched in the country. The neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race could swing control of the “world’s most deliberative body.” The governor’s race, which Republicans haven’t controlled since 2004, is likely to be just as hard-fought, with a two-term Democrat leaving office in a state that voted for Donald Trump by 20 points the last election.

But beneath the headlines, deeper issues are at play. Learn more about them with Shared State, a new series from Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio about the hidden values driving Montana’s 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.

Tune in on Montana Public Radio Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. Listen at our website or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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