Campaign Beat: The Politics Of Lifting COVID-19 Restrictions

Apr 24, 2020

Tonight on Campaign Beat: The health and political fallout of Gov. Steve Bullock's decision to reopen the state is widely debated. One Democratic candidate for governor is critical of the decision to allow schools to reopen. And Sen. Steve Daines has increasing visibility, both in new campaign ads and public appearances.

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

Sally Mauk Rob, Gov. Bullock announced this week that the state will begin to gradually reopen from the shutdown he ordered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Montana has one of the lowest infection rates in the country, but some think it's too soon to allow businesses and restaurants and bars and the like to open back up, even with new restrictions in place.

And this is both a calculated health risk for Montana, and a political risk for the governor.

Rob Saldin Well, Sally, it's just a really challenging situation. It's one that's not unique to Gov. Bullock: Governors across the country are having to grapple with this, too.

But, unlike many of them, Bullock does have a political element at work here. His name is going to be on the ballot for that Senate run. You know, just on the public health aspect of this, cases of virus have stabilized in a lot of places across the country, and that is a result, to a large extent, of social distancing.

So those measures that Bullock and other governors have put in place have been a real success. And yet, it's also the case that the plan he's laid out this week, as he fully acknowledges, is likely to lead to a rise in cases.

Mauk Let's hear what the governor had to say about that:

"I'm concerned whenever social distancing protocols aren't followed, and I'm concerned as we start to reopen up things, and I think all Montanans should know, we'll probably see additional cases."

Mauk But how many additional cases, that's the issue Rob. And if it's a lot, then what?

Saldin Well, right Sally. And that's kind of the nightmare scenario here, I think, is that you open things back up, and then you have a huge spike and you have to go back and shut things down again.

Unfortunately, as the governor also talked about in that press conference, it seems increasingly clear that we aren't really going to be back to a full "return to normal" until there's a vaccine. And that could be many months from now.

And I think another factor that has to be in his mind is that up to this point, the vast majority of citizens have been just willing to abide by the social distancing measures. But there are some cracks that are starting to show, and there is a risk, I would think, that if you keep everything locked down for too long, and don't give people a sense that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, that an increasing number of people will just ignore the restrictions. And that's not a good situation.

And then, of course, you've got the broader fallout from all of this. The most obvious there is the economic toll that this is already had, and concerns about how far it's going to spread. But it's not limited to just that. It's also the mental and emotional toll that this is taking on people.

So Bullock has to try to balance all of these considerations in addition to, as we noted before, the fact that he's running a Senate campaign in the middle of all of this. And just on the politics of it, for a moment, it is my sense that Bullock's base has been a little skeptical over this plan he laid out this week. You know, concerns that it might be too fast, particularly when it comes to the possibility of potentially having schools reopen here in the near future.

Mauk The governor has left it up to individual school districts, Holly, to decide whether they want to reopen after May 7th:

"Yet we need to be thinking about how to minimize the risk of transmission, and still serve our children, how and where they need it most. COVID-19 will be with us, not just for this next several months, but we may well be facing these same issues next fall when school starts."

Mauk And Holly, it seems like the governor is kind of passing the buck here on the issue of whether schools should reopen.

Holly Michels Yeah, he is making that choice to lift his directive that shut down schools statewide, and going back to our local-control state for school districts. So giving them that decision.

You know, Rob was talking about, he has made a lot of choices that people have been pretty supportive of, but like Rob said, starting to maybe waiver as we've lived in this different world for a while. So this might be one that just not having it on his plate gives other people making decisions, and it's not just the governor.

You know, I think before Bullock's announcement, that he was going to let schools make this choice. Some districts in the state had already said they were just going to continue with remote learning for the rest of the school year.

This is really challenging for parents and kids, who I think are just looking for some clarity on what the rest of their school year looks like. And for school districts, it's a huge debate. They have to implement some pretty major measures to operate a school building that follows social-distancing guidelines.

There was some guidance that came out from the governor's office about what that might look like. Staggered school days, you have students really staying in small classroom groups so they're not mixing with others. Libraries and playgrounds would be closed, you have temperature checks as kids are coming in, even looking at maybe different bus routes because you need to limit kids to one child in a seat on a bus.

So I think there's just a huge issue around how districts would keep their staff and students safe. And also for those staff and students who might be at higher risk for serious outcomes if they were to get sick, or have people in their homes who would be, they're encouraged to, if they do start up again this year, let those teachers maybe continue to teach remotely, or to not, you know, penalize kids in any way if they're not comfortable coming back to a classroom.

I think we've talked a lot on the show - you know, there's not a lot of public or very responsive polling in Montana, but all the newspapers that I worked for put out to their readers the question of if they'd like to see schools start this year. And we do those kind of polls a lot, and I've never seen such a resounding answer, which was "no" kind of across the board.

We've also seen the state's largest union for public employees, which represents school teachers and staff, as well as a youth group that kind of includes lot of school boards and rural school districts, come out saying that they don't want to see schools reopen this year. So I think there's a lot of people who don't want to see that, but we'll see what districts end up deciding on their own.

Mauk There are so few weeks left in this school year, that also probably factors in. Rob, among those opposed to schools reopening is Democratic gubernatorial candidate Whitney Williams. And she says it should be, first of all, a statewide decision, and second of all, they should not reopen this spring.

Saldin Yeah, exactly Sally. And, you know, just on the politics of this, I think this is the first real significant divide that we've seen between these two major Democratic candidates for governor.

Williams is picking up on, I think, the same things that all of us are sensing: that there are these real raised eyebrows among a significant part of the Democratic base, concerns that Bullock is moving too quickly to open things back up. And she's clearly giving voice to those concerns.

Mauk And Rob, Williams has her first television ad out, and it leads with the pandemic:

"This virus shook our economy, and brought cities to a standstill. And this president made it worse.

"I'm Whitney Williams, the only Democrat for governor who's helped create jobs and rebuild communities after disasters. Bringing Montana out of this crisis will take energy, new ideas and a new generation of leadership to get people working again and help businesses rebuild.

"I know how to do it, and together, we'll get it done."

Mauk Two things about this struck me, Rob, and one is the dig at Trump and her reference to the "politics of the past."

Saldin Yeah. So, I mean, I think this dovetails nicely with her press release about the governor's plan this week. You know, the attack on Trump always works well in the Democratic primary.

But I think obviously Bullock and Cooney are different people. And this is Bullock's plan, but Cooney is absolutely tied to it because he's Bullock's lieutenant governor. But also, you know, as we've discussed in previous shows, Cooney is very much running as a continuity candidate, as a continuation of the Bullock administration. He's also much older than Williams.

So I think even though it's not a direct attack on Cooney, the contrast is there, just on some of those levels, but also just on the response of Bullock, and Williams' reaction to it.

You know, this is the issue of the day. We now have a major way of distinguishing these Democratic candidates. Cooney, my sense is, seems to be in a pretty strong position. And this comes late in the game, but it is something that potentially could be important, depending on how events play out in the coming weeks.

Mauk Holly, about 300 people rallied at the state Capitol last weekend, urging Gov. Bullock to do what he did this week in opening the state up, and many were supporters of President Trump. And there were some Republican candidates who had a very visible presence at the rally.

Michels Yeah, I think I went down and I covered this rally for most of how long it lasted. I think it ran until about three o'clock before people started dispersing.

And what struck me when I first got there is that it felt a lot more like a political event than a lot of the rallies that I've covered, or have just been up at the Capitol when they've happened.

Like you said, there were a lot of candidates there, and I think those candidates haven't been able to hold in-person events since about mid-March. So this was a way for them to get in front of, you know, a couple hundred voters and interact with people as we're getting closer to the primary.

That included state senator and governor candidate Al Olszewski; Troy Downing, who's running for auditor this cycle; Joe Dooling, who's running for U.S. House, drove a tractor around the capital for a little while; and you saw big trucks with signs for Debra Lamm, who used to head up the statewide Republican Party and is running for U.S. House this year. And also auditor candidate Scott Tuxbury.

And like you said Sally, a lot of people there ... there was a lot of Trump 2020 signs and apparel. I think probably half of the signage I saw that people were holding was more about the president's reelection than the stay-at-home order, some of the economic struggles that other people were there focusing on.

Mauk Rob, I'm seeing a lot more campaign ads on television from Sen. Steve Daines lately, and more than one references China's role in the spread of the coronavirus:

"China lied about the coronavirus, putting Montanans at risk. Now America is dangerously dependent on China for life-saving drugs.

"Sen. Daines is fighting to bring drug manufacturing jobs back to America. Steve Daines: strong leadership we can trust."

Mauk And Rob, he's calling for an investigation into China's role in the spread of the pandemic.

He obviously thinks this is a message that will resonate with voters. But is that really a big concern right now, given all the other concerns people are having?

Saldin Well, it strikes me as a legitimate issue. There are some real questions about how China dealt with this.

You know, the ad strikes me as a way for Daines to jump in and to say something related to the issue that everyone cares about right now. But to do so in a way that really doesn't put himself in the middle of what increasingly seems to be the controversial matter of how exactly do you open things up, and when do you start opening things up.

So this is kind of a way of engaging on the issues that he has the luxury of doing in a way that Bullock, his main competitor, does not have the luxury of doing. Bullock has to, as we talked about earlier in the show, I mean, Bullock has to be making these tough calls, and making real decisions. Daines has the luxury of not having to do that.

Mauk Holly, Daines has also been seen out and about lately in Montana: praising a research lab at the University of Montana, handing out school lunches, etc. These are not strictly campaign events, but they are campaign events.

Michels Yeah, I think, you know, like Rob was saying, that Bullock is out in front of people a lot right now making these decisions. But it also means he's just there, and people are seeing a lot of him right now. And that's harder for, you know, a senator, and Bullock and Daines are both running in the Senate race. I think pretty fair to assume they'll be the ones that come out of their party's primaries to face off in the general.

So it's, you know, a way for Daines to be out there, be in front of voters, so they are seeing him being involved right now. And I think that's, just with all the limited ways that candidates can be doing that right now, this is one way he can access people.

Mauk Ballots will be mailed out in early May, so I suspect we're going to be seeing more of the candidates out and about as best they can, and certainly more of their campaign ads coming out over the next couple of weeks. Rob and Holly, thanks and we'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. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.

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