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2020 Elections

Campaign Beat: Hanoi Who? Montana Ad Checklist

Republicans try to impede Montanans voting by mail. A new ad resurrects "Hanoi Jane." Sen. Daines says a proposed climate action plan would hurt Montana's economy. A democratic protest rings hollow. And a new campaign ad checks all the Montana boxes.

Listen now on Campaign Beat with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk When the Trump campaign and other national Republican groups and the Montana Republican Party filed suit this week against Gov. Bullock over his directive allowing counties to opt for mail ballots, and that's something most counties want to do and something all of them did in the primary.

And Republicans seem to be arguing that Bullock's directive is aimed at giving him some kind of advantage in his Senate race against Steve Daines. But I'm not sure I'm following their logic here.

Gwen Florio I'm not either, especially given the timing of this. The news came out about it just literally just a few moments after I got an email from the Daines campaign objecting to an ad where an Iraq war veteran says, "I don't understand why Sen. Daines won't stand up to those that are trying to sabotage vote-by-mail in Montana."

Mauk Well, this puts Sen. Daines and Greg Gianforte, who's running for governor, in a tight spot, doesn't it? I mean, do they go against the vast majority of Montanans who want to vote by mail, or do they go against the Trump campaign, who's totally opposed to vote by mail?

Florio Right, exactly. And it's the case for a lot of Republicans around the country. These lawsuits are being filed in a lot of other states where, very much like Montana, they're older, they're rural, vote by mail people like it. It increases voter turnout. So you think, again, it's not something you want to come out against.

And at the end of the day, Daines' campaign did get back to me and say, yes, he supports vote by mail. So there you have it.

Mauk Well my guess is they're going to lose the lawsuit regardless, and Montanans will be - likely, most of them - voting by mail, but we shall see.

Rob, Sen. Daines has a new campaign ad featuring a decorated Montana vet chastising Steve Bullock for fundraising with actress Jane Fonda. Here's the ad:

[Steve Daines]: "I'm Steve Daines, and I approve this message."

[Montana veteran]: "I served in Vietnam, and was awarded the Navy Cross. Many of my friends didn't make it home, and I'll never forgive Jane Fonda for attacking our service."

"So it tells me a lot that 'Hanoi Jane' is one of Steve Bullock's biggest supporters, helping to fund his campaigns. I knew Steve Bullock was in with the Hollywood crowd, but siding with Hanoi Jane is way too far. Steve Bullock should be ashamed."

Mauk "Hanoi Jane" is a moniker Jane Fonda can never shake, Rob. But I wonder how effective an ad referencing Vietnam is when Trump, who Sen. Daines supports, also opposed that war and dodged the draft to avoid going. Isn't that kind of a wash?

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally. You know, I mean, one thing that strikes me is that this isn't just a one-off thing. Daines brought up "Hanoi Jane" in the debate a few weeks ago, so they seem to think that this will resonate.

But, yeah, I'm like you, I think; a bit skeptical. I mean first off, how many people even know what this is about? This incident occurred nearly 50 years ago, so anyone who has actual memories of Hanoi Jane's visit to Vietnam, I mean, these people would be in their 60s or older at this point. So, you know, this is just something that's going to be met with blank stares, I think, by a large swath of the electorate.

But your other point, Sally: I mean, the message in this ad, I think you're right, it's undercut by Daines' devotion to Trump. The point of the ad is to establish that Bullock doesn't respect the military, doesn't respect the service and sacrifice of our veterans.

But bringing up Vietnam and the military also serves as a reminder of Trump's dubious Vietnam-era deferments for bone spurs, his attacks on John McCain's service as a P.O.W., his lack of interest in Russia putting bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

And then, of course, just in the last couple days, we've got this bombshell story in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg revealing that Trump has repeatedly referred to American soldiers who've been killed or wounded or captured as losers and suckers and not wanting to see veterans with amputations.

And it all just paints a picture of someone who has zero understanding of - and maybe even contempt for - like these concepts of service and sacrifice in the general sense, but especially with regard to the military. And, you know, of course, Trump is Trump and Daines is Daines, but the contrast is nonetheless there and it serves to make Daines' furrowed brow over "Hanoi Jane" just seem a little small and petty by comparison.

Mauk Meanwhile, Gov. Bullock has a couple of new ads, Rob, that are in direct response to ads by Daines attacking the governor's management of coronavirus relief funds and insinuating he did favors for his brother. Here's the ad Bullock has on now in response to that attack:

[Steve Bullock]: "Leave it better than you found it: My brother taught me that. He started an engineering company to clean up pollution others left behind, creating good Montana jobs. Now, Sen. Daines is dragging my brother's name through the mud."

"The fact is, he left the company years before I became governor, and I've never picked who gets a state contract. I'm Steve Bullock, and I approve this message because while Sen. Daines lies about my family, I'll fight for yours."

Mauk And Rob, Bullock is clearly not happy his brother was targeted by Sen. Daines.

Saldin Right, and they've got what I think is just a classic response to a negative ad with this response ad, right?

So Bullock's got two core messages here. One is that Daines charges are just false and easily disproved. And two, the other thing he's trying to do here is just establish that Daines' audacity in launching this kind of attack tells us a lot more about who Daines is as a person, right? It's a reflection of his character, right, that he would even say these kinds of things about Bullock's brother.

And, in fact, we actually see Bullock directly called Daines a liar here, which also dovetails with a theme of the Democrat's campaign and characterization of Daines. We've seen for months now that the Democratic Party has been referring to the senator as "Dishonest Daines," so this reinforces that message as well.

Mauk Gwen, a climate solutions council appointed by Bullock will soon release a draft statewide climate change plan. But the plan was leaked to a conservative website and immediately criticized by Sen. Daines because the plan calls for a carbon tax.

It calls for a lot of other things, too, but that's bound to be the most controversial provision and one that Sen. Daines definitely wants to highlight.

Florio Right. It was a 72-page report with lots and lots of proposals. This one Daines really homed in on was called "Engage in National and Regional Dialogs Regarding Carbon Pricing," but carbon pricing right there is the buzz word. Daines called it a reckless proposal that's a gut punch to the over 35,000 oil, gas and coal jobs in Montana.

Mauk Arguments over climate change, Gwen, often devolve into saving jobs versus saving the planet, and in Montana I think you're right, I think the jobs argument likely has the edge there.

Florio Yeah, and it's not just the jobs argument. This is one of the very few proposals in the plan that that saw some objections for people. It's a Council of 39 and four on the council objected, and they point out that any time you increase costs to the producer, eventually those are going to filter down to the consumer. So that was also part of the argument against it.

Mauk Rob, Montana Democrats have been staging protests accusing Sen. Daines of being "on vacation" instead of doing his job and addressing pressing issues like the coronavirus.

In fact, the Senate is in recess and all the senators, including Daines and Democrat Jon Tester, are back in their home states. It's not like Daines has a choice here.

Saldin Well, right. It's pretty silly. I mean, they talk about it as though they expect him to be sitting at his desk, alone on the Senate floor with the lights out. Democrats should really take this up with Mitch McConnell and, for that matter, with just the longstanding traditions of the Senate. There's always an August recess.

You know, traditionally that started because Washington isn't a very pleasant place to be this time of year. But it's also because members want to get back home and put in face time with their constituents, particularly in election years.

And, you know, this whole allegation that when members aren't in D.C., that they're on vacation, it's an old, tired line. It's one I've never liked. There's just a lot more to being a member of Congress than casting votes on the floor.

And indeed, constituents expect and demand that their representatives maintain a presence back home. Members of Congress would be seen as not doing their job if they weren't back home. And I'm sure there are some bad apples out there. But generally speaking, when members of Congress are back in state, they're not on vacation. They're traveling around, they're meeting with constituents, holding events and so on.

Now Daines has certainly been criticized over the years for his lack of open town hall meetings, which are certainly a tradition that he's avoided, and there's there's something to that criticism. But that's quite different than saying he's just been on vacation.

Mauk You know, I think it's arguable that when they're on recess, they're actually working as hard or harder than when they're in D.C. because they're on the road all the time and having to do all that constituent service. That is part of the job, like you say.

Saldin Absolutely, and there's no downtime, right? It's like when they're in interacting with members of the public, it's game time.

Mauk Finally guys, here's a new ad by the Republican Governors PAC, and this one attacks gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney and I think it takes quite a few liberties. Here's that ad:

[Narrator]: "Forty four years in politics and Mike Cooney's big idea?"

"Was a massive sales tax that would kill businesses like ours and ours. Cooney raised taxes and fees on almost everything. Fishing, hunting, health care, cars, even water."

"Did you say water?"

"Almost a billion in higher taxes and fees. I can't afford Mike Cooney. We can't afford Mike Cooney. Montana just can't afford Mike Cooney, no way."

"RGA Right Direction PAC is responsible for the content of this advertising."

Mauk First of all, Gwen, this ad gets credit for touching all the visual bases: It's got guns, fly rods, cammo and a tractor. In campaign season, I don't think we see anything else but those in ads often.

Florio You know, I kinda had to laugh when I saw it, because it does check all the Montana boxes, and my thought was take out the sound. You could put another overlay over it, and it could almost be a tourism ad, like "Come hunt, come fish, come drive a truck!"

Mauk But the information, Rob, in the ad is exaggerated at best.

Saldin Yeah. I mean, it seems to me it all kind of is tied up with the sales-tax business, and you know, Gianforte's alleged support for a sales tax? That was a big issue in his failed gubernatorial run four years ago, and Cooney has made that a centerpiece of his campaign this time.

And Gianforte is pushing back and trying to say that Cooney's the guy who's going to drive up your taxes. And, you know, I'm just not convinced that this is working all that well for either of the candidates.

At the end of the day - you know, as it relates to the sales tax at least - you've got two guys who insist that they adamantly oppose it. But I think it probably is more of a concern for Cooney, because I think he needs something to stick here and if Gianforte just plays this one to a draw, that's probably fine for him.

You know, the other thing I noticed in this ad: it gets in what is now just a familiar line, that Cooney is a career politician. And that's how Republicans are trying to define Cooney, and they've pretty much had free rein to paint that picture and, you know, Cooney needs to respond here. It's my understanding that we will be seeing a lot of paid media from Cooney soon, and I think he needs it.

Mauk Well, there are so many ads on the air and we still have two months to go, so there are going to be a lot more "coming down the pike," as you say.

Rob and Gwen, thanks very much, and I'll talk to you 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.

Coming Soon: 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. starting September 5. Listen at our websites or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts starting September 8.
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