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2020 Elections

Campaign Beat: QAnon, Carbon Tax And Cooney On Drums

Vice President Mike Pence and top Montana Republican candidates plan to attend a fundraiser hosted by supporters of QAnon, which the FBI calls a domestic terrorism threat. Gov. Bullock flip-flops on support of a carbon tax. A new ad accuses Sen. Daines of cozying up to Texas billionaires who own a big chunk of Montana. A new poll shows the Senate race a virtual tie. Trump's remarks about dead soldiers draw party line reaction. And Mike Cooney marches to the beat of his own drum.

Listen now on Campaign Beat with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Gwen Florio, filling in for Holly Michels.

Sally Mauk Rob, Vice President Mike Pence will be in Bozeman next week for a fund raiser hosted by a Montana couple, Caryn and Michael Borland, who apparently support the weird QAnon conspiracy.

And this is the group that believes there are government figures involved in Satanism, pedophilia and even cannibalism. And Sen. Daines, Rep. Gianforte, Matt Rosendale all plan to attend this fundraiser. And this strikes me as a very bad look for any candidates to associate with QAnon, which is clearly a wacko movement. What do you think?

Rob Saldin Well, it is Sally. A little context here — I mean I think conspiracy theories have often been adjacent to mainstream American politics. So in that sense, you can draw some parallels between QAnon and other conspiracy theories about, you know, things like the Illuminati or elaborate plots behind the Kennedy assassination. And in fact, back in the early 1960s, the great historian Richard Hofstadter argued in in his famous essay, The Paranoid Style of American Politics, that hysterical conspiracy theories are basically a recurring feature of U.S. politics.

But, you know, one thing that's notable about the QAnon phenomenon is that it does appear to be making real inroads into the Republican Party, and so this fundraiser is just the latest example of this. You know, it's now apparently kind of normal for mainstream Republican politicians like the vice president and Daines and Gianforte and Rosendale to do things like attend fundraisers hosted by QAnon supporters. But Sally, you're right: QAnon is such a fringe thing that I agree, this isn't a great look for these politicians.

Mauk And the danger, of course, is that QAnon does promote violence, that there've been episodes where there have been QAnon followers who've committed violence. And that goes beyond just being sort of a fringe movement, it's a movement that has some danger attached to it, I think.

Saldin Absolutely, and that's also why it's all the more notable that it's making real inroads into one of our two main political parties.

Mauk Gwen, the state climate plan we talked about last week was released this week, and notably Gov. Bullock came out against the plan's proposed carbon tax and, in fact, against any carbon tax. The problem for Bullock, Gwen, is that this is a reversal of the position he took when he ran for president a few short months ago.

Gwen Florio Right. The Washington Post, when Bullock was running for president, quizzed all — I think it was 20-some — Democratic hopefuls at that point exactly where they stood on carbon tax. And his answer was "Yes, he did support it," and he qualified it very slightly by saying there need to be protections for communities affected, but again, it was an unequivocal yes.

Mauk Rob, Gov. Bullock this week filed a lawsuit against the postmaster general, alleging he's trying to obstruct the delivery of the mail. And his opponent in the Senate race, Sen. Daines, immediately labeled it a political stunt.

Saldin Right? It's the season for political stunts. So Bullock is alleging that the postmaster general, who is a Trump political appointee, has illegally instituted changes that are designed to undermine vote-by-mail. And we've seen lawsuits like this filed by Democrats in a number of other states, too.

So these changes in post office procedure were announced last month, just as election officials in Montana and across the country were getting ready for an election that's expected to see far more vote-by-mail than we typically see, obviously because of the pandemic.

But then President Trump and Republicans have been increasingly vocal in claiming that vote by mail is fraudulent and a way for Democrats to steal the election. So given these claims by the administration and its supporters, Democrats just don't think that the timing on these moves by the Postal Service is coincidental, but instead a rather deliberate attempt to thwart vote-by-mail.

And, of course, Gwen, you talked last week about the other thing we've got going on, legally speaking, as we have now multiple other lawsuits here in Montana filed by Republicans that are seeking to toss out Bullock's order allowing counties to opt for full mail-in voting this fall. So we've got a number of legal balls in the air, at this point.

Mauk Well, meanwhile, the League of Conservation Voters PAC has a new ad out attacking Daines for his association with some Texas billionaires who own a lot of land in Montana. Here's that ad:

[Narrator]: "The Texas billionaire Wilks brothers have it all. They're the largest individual landowners in Montana. They even have their own senator: Steve Daines.

"Daines took over $800,000 from real estate interests and the Wilks family. No wonder Daines voted to open the door for out-of-state developers, threatening access for Montana's hunters and anglers.

"Steve Daines is for them, not us."

Mauk And I wonder, Rob, how effective this ad is in the wake of Daines' successfully steering passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which conservationists were thrilled to have passed?

Saldin I definitely think that's the larger context here in which this ad is coming out, and that's correct on the Great American Outdoors Act. That was a real win for Daines.

But, you know, typically it's Democrats who are seen as more reliable champions of public lands, and this has also always been a feather in Steve Bullock's cap.

But with Daines' role in passing the Great American Outdoors Act, you know, we've seen him recently touting the issue as something that voters should look to him as an advocate for public lands.

And absolutely, most conservation groups were thrilled with the Great American Outdoors Act. And they praised Daines for his role in that, although they also did note that his overall record on public lands is more of a mixed bag.

But I think what we're seeing in this ad, what it's trying to do, is call into question Daines' effort to portray himself as a public lands hero.

Mauk A new poll by AARP, Rob, shows Daines and Bullock in a statistical tie, with Daines leading 50% to 47%. But that's within the margin of error, and I don't think any of us are surprised at how tight that race is looking right now.

Saldin Yeah, yeah. You know, another poll that still looks very close. I did note, though, this is the fourth public poll in a row, dating back to mid-July, that shows Daines ahead. Now they're all within the margin of error, but even so, I think Democrats would probably feel a little better if they saw one or two of these come out that showed their guy on top. But again, you know, from a statistical standpoint, these are all showing a dead heat.

Mauk Gwen, a recent article in The Atlantic magazine and several other news organizations, including Fox News, reported President Trump referring to soldiers wounded and killed as "losers and suckers." And reaction by Montana politicians fell along party lines, with Democrats calling the remarks disgusting and abhorrent and Republicans believing the president's denials.

Florio Right. One of the things the spokespeople for the Republican campaigns noted was that all of the reports across the board have been based on anonymous sources, and therefore they criticize the stories as not being credible for that reason.

The Democrats, as you pointed out; Lt. Gov. Cooney called it abhorrent. Gov. Bullock called Sen. Daines cowardly for not addressing it.

Mauk And Sen. Daines and others have said basically, the anonymous sources are wrong or have some motive that is against the president. I'm not quite sure what their rationale for that is other than it was anonymous.

Florio Exactly, and I think it is easy to attack reports like that on anonymous sources because people aren't willing to put their names to it. It gives people a venue, again, to call those sources not credible.

Mauk And then, Gwen, we have the new book by Bob Woodward detailing how Trump misled the public about the danger of the coronavirus, and reaction to that has been less than forthcoming from Republicans.

Basically, there hasn't been a reaction, to my knowledge, from Montana Republicans.

Florio Yeah, to put it mildly. And of course, this came out a day after the reports about The Atlantic article; not the day after, but in pretty quick proximity.

And, in this case, we had a "the source" on the record, on tape, making the comments, but suddenly no one wanted to address it. I did ask the Daines campaign four separate times to specifically address it. They did not, only saying that the Missoulian was focused on taking down President Trump.

I kind of missed the memo on the fact that I'm supposed to be doing that — busy covering western Montana — but they did not specifically address the president's comments.

Mauk Rob, that new AARP poll we talked about earlier shows Trump is leading Joe Biden in Montana by seven points.

That's not a surprise, perhaps, but that is a lot smaller lead than the 20 points he won by in 2016. It does seem to show that support for Trump may be slipping in Montana.

Saldin Yeah, it definitely could mean that. It could also mean that Biden is just a less polarizing figure than Hillary Clinton, too.

But in so far as, you know, that poll tells us something about what's going on here, the thing that stood out to me in that poll is that Daines and Trump register the exact same level of support. And what saved Bullock four years ago were ticket splitters, that is, voters who cast a ballot for Trump and for Bullock. The Republican candidate four years ago for governor, Gianforte, underperformed Trump by 10 points, which is huge, right?

But here in this poll, we see zero drop off from Trump to Daines, and that suggests to me that Daines' fundamental strategy of clinging for dear life to Trump's coattails may be paying off.

You know, one unique thing about Montana politics is that historically, we've seen a lot of ticket splitters, as we did four years ago. But if this poll is accurate, we may not see nearly as many this time around.

Mauk Rob, Mike Cooney, who's running for governor of course, has a new ad out featuring him banging on a drum set. Here's that ad:

[Mike Cooney]: "Hey there. I'm Mike Cooney. It's true. Early on, I chose to dedicate my life to public service. But boy, I dreamt of doing this instead.

"Anyway, as governor, I've got the track record to deliver affordable health care, protect our public lands, create jobs and opportunity and to bring Montanans together to get it all done, because that's really my thing. Right?

"One, two! [song starts]"

Mauk I can't decide, Rob, if this ad is cute or dorky or both.

Saldin Well, you know, I think it's basically an attempt to humanize Cooney, to introduce him to voters. Republicans have spent months now defining him as a career politician and whatnot, and we see him directly respond to that charge in this ad before touting his accomplishments.

The question, I guess, to me is whether this comes a little late. I do think it's been the strategy of the Cooney camp — or at least it became the strategy at some point — to just try to hang close through the summer and then be able to hit the accelerator for the final post-Labor-Day sprint. But the problem with that is that outside of Helena and Democratic circles, Cooney didn't enter this race with particularly high name recognition and the Republicans have had a big head start in defining Cooney. Now, to be sure, a big part of that has to do with money. Cooney just hasn't had the financial resources that Gianforte has. But nonetheless, this response is coming, you know, pretty close to when ballots are slated to be mailed out here.

Mauk Well, I think we all may be banging on a drum before this election season is over. Gwen and Rob, thanks very much. 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.

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. starting September 5. Listen at our website or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts starting September 8.
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