Sen. Daines vs. protesters; the new national attack ad against Sen. Tester; state GOP chairman pushes to block the mail-ballot election for Ryan Zinke's replacement; opposition to Gianforte as the Republican nominee in the upcoming special election; and former Chief Justice Karla Gray's legacy, this week on "Capitol Talk."
Sally Mauk: Welcome to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative news program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin who's joining us from New York, and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
SM: Rob, Republican Senator Steve Daines was supposed to address the Montana legislature on Tuesday. Hundreds of protesters showed up wanting to let him know their disappointment in his refusal to hold in-person town hall meetings, but Daines was a no-show at the last minute he moved his speech to the next day.
Rob Saldin: Yeah, exactly. In a way you can hardly blame him for trying to avoid these. These town hall protests are of course going on across the country, and they're straight out of the old Tea Party playbook. One thing that's going on here I think, is that unlike a lot of Democrats back in 2009 and 2010 who were caught off guard, Republicans today know what's waiting for them if they show up for a town hall or for in this case, a scheduled speech where there's a big protest. It seems clear that some politicians out there like to mix it up and feed off of these exchanges, but most don't, and Daines certainly appears to be among those who would prefer to just avoid them. but for the protesters, one thing that strikes me is that it really is kind of a win-win situation. If these members o f Congress show up you get a great YouTube moment, and if they avoid these encounters, which Daines quite clearly is doing, then they get mocked as being scared of talking to their constituents.
SM: Here's what one of the protester had to say:
"He's not representing us. I'm really, really upset. I'm a mother, I'm grandmother, I'm a great grandma. I'm worried about Planned Parenthood with granddaughters, I"m worried about the Affordable Care Act, what kind of healthcare, the future for my family, for the citizens. Education. I'm worried about everything."
SM: She's worried about everything Rob.
RS: Right, one of the best insights I've seen recently as to where Daines is at is an interview he did this week just after his speech with Jayme Fraser of the Lee papers, and he basically said look, it's not particularly important for me to engage with these people because I'm already aware of what they think. And said that he doubts that any conversation would be productive because the protesters just want to shout and create what he calls "gotcha moments." And there's obviously some truth in that. It's not like Daines or the people demanding a town hall are going to change their minds after such an interaction.
SM: Senator Daines used his Wednesday appearance at the legislature to applaud the Trump administration, and then he held a press conference in the capitol to push for the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme court. But a few dozen protesters and a handful of his supporters showed up for that press conference, and here's the senator's take on the protesters:
"Lets not forget a basic point of this last election: Hillary Clinton lost by 20 points in Montana. Donald Trump won in a landslide in this state, and while every voice must be heard in Montana, the reality is the people of Montana rejected Hillary Clinton and voted for Donald Trump."
SM: And then Rob, Senator Daines ended the press conference before anyone could ask any more questions.
RS: Right, exactly Sally. It dovetails with some of the comments he made with the Lee Papers. He kind of gave a shout out to what I think is an inaccurate idea that's been put out by the White House and others that all of the push back we're seeing is just somehow being cooked up by a small band of paid protesters. So he didn't go quite that far as we've seen Sean Spicer and some other people go, but clearly he was nodding in that general direction. And he also suggested that basically the protesters are limited to a kind of fringe, hysterical element that's based in our two main college towns and in Helena, and that seems to be a fundamentally inaccurate understanding of what's going on in the country. You know, yes of course it's true that Trump won by a large margin in Montana, but the push back that we're seeing, this isn't just limited to the usual suspect list of liberal activists. It's broader than that, quite clearly, I think. And if anything it seems to be gaining momentum. Moreover, whatever you might want to say about the election, another way of looking at it is, where is Trump at in approval ratings; and they're terrible. He has the lowest approval ratings ever recorded at this point in the presidency. For Daines representing Montana probably allows him to be a little bit more cavalier on some of these matters, but his response still seems to suggest something of a misreading on his part of what's going on out there right now.
SM: And it's doubtful that telling people to get over the election is going to be an effective strategy.
Chuck a group called the Judicial Crisis Network sponsored the Daines press conference. That's not a Montana group.
Chuck Johnson: No Sally, it's a national group, and it founded in 2004 to push for the nominations of two of the people that President George W. Bush nominated for the court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and since then it's been active in trying to sway senators on confirmation votes for judicial candidates, for or against.
SM: They're also sponsoring an ad that's currently airing in in Montana, urging Montana's Democratic Senator Jon Tester to vote for Gorsuch. But they're also really going after Senator Tester:
"Four years ago John Tester went back to Washington. Since then he's changed. Tester supports Obamacare, even the hated individual mandate. And dangerous sanctuary cities, he's fine with them. Now Jon Tester is creating gridlock, threatening to obstruct Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Neil Gorsuch has bipartisan support, a qualified judge with a record of being fair and always applying the constitution just as it was written. Tell Jon Tester stop the obstruction, confirm Gorsuch."
SM: Chuck that sounds like a negative campaign ad to me.
CJ: Yeah, it's one of the first 2018 campaign ads we've seen against Jon Tester. Tester at least the comments I've seen, have said he's met with Gorsuch, he said he'll study where Gorsuch is on issues and make a decision. To my knowledge he's not yet said how he will vote on the nomination. I can't imagine an ad like this is very persuasive for a senator who may still be considering it.
SM: Rob, before that U.S. Senate elections happens, Montana sometime in late spring or early summer will hold a special election for a new member of Congress to replace Ryan ZInke. And although we've been saying for weeks the Republican front-runner is Greg Gianforte who lost his bid to be governor, there are some Republican leaders, notably state Senate President Scott Sales, who think Gianforte is "un-electable."
RS: This kind of all broke at the GOP's annual Lincoln-Reagan dinner, and apparently it was Daines' public endorsement of Gianforte at at that dinner that really got under Sales' skin and sparked his comments. And in a way that struck me as a little bit odd because it seems totally unsurprising that Daines would endorse Gianforte. After all, they're old friends, they worked together in business in Bozeman. And on top of that, Gianforte has been claiming for weeks that he already has the Republican nomination locked up. And no one's really tried to refute that point. So given all that, it seems entirely unremarkable that Daines would be publicly in Gianforte's corner. But nonetheless, I think the notable thing here was that Sales gave voice to something that we've discussed a time or two more speculatively, and that is whether there are doubts within the Republican Party about Gianforte's electability. This is, after all the guy who just got beat in the governor's race in what otherwise was an across the board sweep for Republicans. And of course to be fair it's important to remember that it's very hard to beat an incumbent governor. But still, if a conservative Republican running in Montana can't win in November of 2016, it's got to make some people think that, gee, maybe there's a problem with this particular candidate. In terms of looking forward and despite this public display of internal party tension, we aren't seeing, necessarily, and clear effort to drop Gianforte, at lease not that I"m aware of. There's stil time for something like that to develop, but we'd have to see them coalesce around a single alternative candidate, and it'd have to happen pretty quickly.
SM: That could be an interesting nominating convention to say the least.
Chuck, state Republican Chairman Jeff Essmann has come out adamantly against a Republican sponsored bill to allow that upcoming special election to be held by mail ballot only. And he sent out an email recently warning such an election would hurt the Republican candidate because it would increase turnout of what he calls "low propensity voters." What's he talking about?
CJ: Well he put this note out and he's concerned that people who don't regularly vote would get a mail ballots and it might encourage them to vote. And he doesn't state specifically who he's referring to, but he makes a comment about how Democrats are better at getting unpaid college students and public employee union members to go encourage people to vote and help push the votes along. It's a very unusual situation. Essmann who's now also a state representative; and the Secretary of State Cory Stapleton, newly elected from last year; both appeared before a Republican senators caucus the other day, and while careful to say they weren't telling them how to vote, they started giving the arguments why they shouldn't vote for this bill by Republican Senator Steve Fitzpatrick. One point that's interesting is that this bill came from county election officials that said this would save counties up to $700,000 statewide by not having to hire election judges, rent places, and that's money the counties could spend better on roads and other things. It's a local option type of choice. A county could choose to have the traditional primary election, or they could go with an all mail ballot, so it's up to the counties. The bill passed the Senate rather easily so we'll see what happens in the House, but it was unusual to see the Republican state chair come out and say this is going to cause low propensity voters to vote, and they're not gonna vote for us.
SM: Well he said in fact, "This bill could be the death of our effort to make Montana a reliably Republican state." That's quite a dramatic statement.
CJ: Yeah, and Fitzpatrick on the other hand presented some evidence on the Senate floor as well as in caucus that said Republicans never did better than they did in the 2016 elections and in some counties like Yellowstone and Cascade, the vast majority of voters voted by mail rather than showing up at the polling places. It's an interesting issue to watch as the Republican Party really disagrees over this.
SM: Democrats, Chuck can hardly hide their glee at the backlash to chairman Essmann's letter. Gov. Steve Bullock was on the Rachel Maddow Show talking about it this week. They'[re able to make the argument that Republicans want to suppress the vote, that they think that's the only way they can win is by making sure fewer people vote, and that's not a good public impression to make.
CJ: No, voter suppression is something nobody wants, and Gov. Bullock made a lot of those very same points on the Rachel Maddow Show and this has gotten some national attention both on her show an other places, so it's a vote being watched around the country in political circles.
SM: Finally Chuck, Montana's first female chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Karla Gray, died recently. And it's a measure of how respected she was that Gov. Bullock ordered the state flags to be flown at half-mast in her honor.
CJ: That's correct Sally. Karla Gray was a really interesting person. She got appointed to the Montana Supreme Court by Gov. Stephens in his term, and she was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She replaced another female on the Supreme Court who resigned. Then she was elected twice to the Supreme Court as an associate justice, and then in 2000, she was elected as the first female chief justice. Karla Gray throughout her career as a judge was a strong advocate for access to justice for all. Her pitch was that everyone deserves a right to be part of the court system, and she fought long and hard for that both on the court and after she retired in 2009. I think she deserves a lot of credit for that. That will be her legacy, I think as the first female chief justice and also someone who fought for access to the courts for poor people.
SM: And also was a mentor of course to many women in Montana who aspire to have careers in the legal profession.
You've been listening to "Capitol Talk" our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk, and I've been speaking with UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin, and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.
Tune in to "Capitol Talk" online, or on your radio at 6:35 p.m. every Friday during the session, and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.