What does the Kansas congressional election have to do with Montana's House race? Will the upcoming visits by Donald Trump Jr. and (possibly) Bernie Sanders, help the candidates? Mail-only voting looks dead in the Legislature, where passage of a gas tax hike looks likely and infrastructure funding and bonding are still being debated. And in 2018 election news, Jon Tester has a Republican challenger in the Senate race. These stories an more on this episode of "Capitol Talk."
Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Capitol Talk" our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk, and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Sally Mauk: Rob, there was a congressional election in my home state of Kansas recently that has both given hope to Montana Democrats and attract more national attention and money to Montana's congressional race, even though the Democrat in Kansas lost. What's going on?
Rob Saldin: Right. Well the Democrat only lost by 7 points which may not sound super close, but this is a district that Donald Trump carried by 27 points, and that the Republican who thin newly elected guy's going to be replacing, carried by 31 points, just five months ago. So a lot of people are looking at this result, extrapolating from that that this is a clear indicator that there is a lot of push-back against President Trump. This is foreshadowing a massive Democratic landslide in the midterm elections, and of course with a couple special elections coming up, Democrats are now very encourage. Now it's definitely true that if you look at the margin, the decline, the under-performance by the Republican in Kansas and were to take that and transpose it on Montana, it does look like a setup for Congressman Quist. But we need to take that with a grain of salt I think. This was essentially just one data point. And there were unique factors to this race. For instance, by all accounts, the Republican ran a very bad campaign. So, we have to be careful about reading too much into it, and I think some people are taking it too far. But that said, despite that wet blanket, clearly there was more going on here than just factors unique to that Kansas district, and there's every reason for Democrats to feel encouraged by it and for Republicans to worry about it. Republicans though do seem to have gotten the message. A Super PAC associated with House Speaker Paul Ryan has kicked in a million dollars just in the last couple days to help Gianforte, and the House campaign committee for the Republicans has kicked in another $300,000. So Republicans have been put on alert.
SM: And Donald Trump Jr. is coming to Montana to campaign for Greg Gianforte this coming week and Bernie Sanders is supposedly coming to Montana to campaign for Rob Quist. So it's getting a lot of more national attention. How does Bernie Sanders help Rob Quist win the vote of an eastern Montana rancher Rob?
RS: Well, yeah. To me that's the question. I guess we should say the Sanders event that hasn't been announced — it hasn't been confirmed. It's widely rumored and it does appear that it's going to happen. It hasn't been totally nailed down yet. I think Rob Quist was a Sanders supporter in the 2016 presidential primary, and so in some ways this visit makes a lot of sense. Of course Sanders has a deep and passionate following. He'll go over very well here in Missoula. But yeah, I think the question you raise is the important one. Does this actually help Quist statewide? One of Quist's appeals is supposedly his ability to connect with rural Montanans and people in eastern Montana, and I don't know if Sanders is going to help with those slices of the population.
SM: Quist has another ad out and this one goes after the millionaires in Congress:
"Did you know in Congress there are nearly 300 millionaires? No wonder their so-called health reform was just another tax break for the rich. And no wonder they want to sell our public lands to private developers, and hand our Social Security to Wall Street. This should not be the millionaires' club. This is the House of Representatives."
SM: This Rob, hits all the Democratic buttons: public lands, healthcare, and Social Security.
RS: Yeah, it's a nice overview statement of the Quist campaign. And of course, not so subtle contrasts with his opponent Greg Gianforte. So it hits all the populist buttons. In many ways totally dovetails with the Bernie Sanders message from last year.
SM: Meanwhile, Greg Gianforte is going all-in with Donald Trump, and I recently asked Gianforte why he barely mentioned Trump in his race for governor, but now is all-in with the president. And here is his answer:
"Well, when I was running for governor, I was running for governor. I was presenting myself for that particular race. This is a federal race, that race was not a federal race, that's the biggest difference."
SM: There might be a few other factors at play, Rob?
RS: Well, right. Gianforte has emerged as a neo-Trumpian since he launched his current campaign. I don't know. If I'm with the Gianforte campaign I worry a little bit that I'm picking the wrong horse again. You know, back during his run for governor, Gianforte ignored Trump, which seemed like an entirely reasonable thing to do at the time. I'm sure with the benefit of hindsight he wishes he would've taken a more Ryan Zinke, all-in approach to Trump. And he certainly has this time, but now Trump's numbers have slid a little bit. I'm sure he's still holding relatively strong in Montana, but he is just not in the same position of strength that he was back in November. But at this point, Gianforte is so far out there attaching himself to Trump, you couldn't walk it back even if you wanted to, so may as well just forge ahead.
SM: He doesn't seem to want to [distance himself from Trump]. This race is getting ever more interesting as the May 25 election approaches, which isn't that far from now.
Chuck, we still don't know if voters in many counties will vote by mail ballot only, but it's looking less and less likely.
Chuck Johnson: That's right Sally. As you may recall, Gov. Bullock a few days ago did an amendatory veto on an election bill to require mail ballots and it's in the House and it hasn't seen the light of day. It's rumored to be one of the so-called desk-drawer vetoes, and I don't think it'll every see the light of day. And as you say it's getting late. Earlier we had heard that April 10 was the drop-dead date for election officials to know whether they would go to an all mail ballot or not. I think this is essentially a dead issue at the Legislature, at least with the Republican majorities.
SM: What is likely, Chuck is the price of gasoline is going up in Montana. A compromise gas tax bill is still very much alive, though with a smaller increase than originally proposed.
CJ: Yes, as it left the House it was 8 cents increase for gasoline, now it goes down to 4.5 cents for a couple years, then 5 cents for a couple years, 5.5 and up to 6 cents increase by 2023. The diesel fuel, meanwhile, is quiet a bit lower, whereas in the House it was pretty similar to the gas tax increase. This is what the Senate did. The sponsor of the bill, Kalispell Representative Frank Garner wasn't real happy. Gov. Bullock told reporters that he liked the House bill better than the Senate bill, but this is compromise that seems to be heading toward passage. It's tied in with a lot of other things that might surprise people when they go to register their cars or get a new drivers license. There are going to be all these fees on more than 100 transactions with the Motor Vehicle people of 3 percent. And if the gas tax bill doesn't come it'll be 9.6 percent. So every time you license a car, transfer titles and so on, you'll pay this fee, and it's basically to get the Motor Vehicle Division out from the gas tax money so that can go for highway funding an match federal funds.
SM: Chuck, opponents to the increase like Hungry Horse Republican Senator Dee Brown argue it will hurt people who can't afford it:
"The people who aren't here speaking against this bill are our constituents. Remember those people who are working at home, who are working for minimum wage? Remember that they're not being able to afford an electric car, that their car is an old beater. Who are we punishing here?"
SM: And she has a point Chuck. This is going to hurt some Montanans.
CJ: It will, although the sponsor of the bill in the Senate side, Duane Ankney, said it would only amount to like $3 or $4 per month. But you know, for a lot of people, that is a lot. The other trend we're seeing is Republican legislators sort of playing the poor people card. We saw it on the cigarette tax when they said poor people couldn't afford to smoke if that were the case. You know, that is a little bit hypocritical for some of them, though. I think it's fair to say Dee Brown is kind of a blue-collar Republican in her own way.
SM: Chuck, a gas tax is just one way needed infrastructure projects would be funded, but a more comprehensive infrastructure plan is still very much in doubt, isn't it?
CJ: Yes, the bill that's in the House now is by Senator Moore of Miles City, Eric Moore. It calls for $98 million in bonding for infrastructure, and the House did not pass. It failed to meet the 2/3 requirement. A $78 million infrastructure bill by Senator Cuffe. I don't know what's going to happen. There are about 20 Republicans in the House that want no bonding at all. They don't want the state to go in debt. And remember, these take a super majority of 67 votes in the House, so it's possible we could end up like last session with nothing. I think people are bound and determined to make sure that doesn't happen again, but I don't think we're going to see $98 million in infrastructure pass, it'll probably be much less. Maybe it'll be the full $78 that Cuffe's bill had, maybe it'll be less, but it would be a great embarrassment for the state if infrastructure fails once again.
SM: And an embarrassment that would cross party lines, I'm sure, too.
Rob we've speculated recently about who might challenge Senator Jon Tester's re-election bid next year. This week, a doctor from Kalispell became the first Republican to enter the race.
RS: Right Albert Olszewski from Kalispell is the first one to throw his hat into the ring. Not exactly a household name, but I think Republicans look at this seat an see something that's very winnable. So it doesn't surprise me that we might not have a lot of Republicans interested in this. Tester of course is the senior figure at this point in Montana politics, but he's a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state, and he's never won with a majority, right. He's fallen short of 50 percent in both of his wins. Again, I just think that Republicans look at this and see a possibility of picking up a seat. And for that matter, it's clear that Tester is looking at the race in the same way. He's been in campaign mode for months now. He's raising a lot of money. He already has racked-up $3 million. Two million of which just came in this year. His communications team is in full swing as anyone knows who's on one of his email lists. So they're clearly expecting another tight race regardless of who ends up being the opponent, and they're preparing for that. At the same time I think they're also trying to kick up a little dust to maybe make Tim Fox and some of the other potential top-tier challenger think twice about getting in.
SM: Well this coming week is going to be hectic both at the Capitol and on the campaign trail. And they may wrap up work this coming week Chuck, right?
CJ: I don't know Sally, that's the big question. People are saying maybe Friday. Ninety days would be a week from Friday, and they're allowed 90 legislative days. They've got a lot of work left to do. They've got to get a budget that will pass muster with Gov. Bullock. They've go to get an infrastructure bill passed. They've got many, many bills to pass, so I don't know. They'll have a short week. They'll come back, essentially to check in on Tuesday, so they'll have three days. I hope that some talks are going on over the weekend among legislators so they can reach some deals to get out of here. But there's pretty broad differences between the Republican majorities in the House and Senate and Gov. Bullock on the budget. We'll see if they get those resolved.
SM: You've been listening to "Capitol Talk" our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Thanks guys.
By the way, my one-on-one interview of Greg Gianforte will air Monday evening during All Things Considered.
Rob and Chuck, I hope you have a great Easter weekend.
"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.