Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Political Wolf

David Parker has done a commendable job lately of covering the impact of big money in the Tester/Rehberg race. I fully expect a variation of Gresham's law to apply as negative ads funded by outside groups drive away a civil discussion on issues important to Montana and the west. Here is one version of how that will go down.

Politics is all about frames, images, and themes - the simpler the better; think Willie Horton. The most effective frame captures a basket of issues in a single image around which political rhetoric and an emotional storyline is constructed. The frame for this race is Canis lupus  - the grey wolf.

Today, there is not a more divisive issue in the Greater Yellowstone region or most western states than the reintroduction and subsequent management of the grey wolf. It is the quintessential political frame bound up as it is in the economic history of the west, environmental romanticism, private property rights, as well as the science (and politics) of public land management. The wolf stirs reaction from most citizens of the region as well as politicians at every level of government. One’s stance on wolf policy clearly demarcates a cultural divide between the old west and the new west.

Apex predators like grey wolves are large, charismatic, and potentially dangerous. In most parts of the world, they are often the targets of extermination programs, poaching for profit, and perceived to be a threat to private property. At best, many people find them difficult to live with. Others find them intolerable. The reason is that humans, especially those who make a living off the land, share habitat with creatures that can, and do, kill and maim. They damage property, they force us to live differently simply because they exist.

The grey wolf was once widespread across the whole of North America but eradicated in most of the contiguous U.S. by the 1930’s. By 1977, the war on the wolf was officially won. In 1991, after much political maneuvering, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a recovery plan for the grey wolf to large and remote expanses of public land. When the Clinton administration took office in 1993, the science and more importantly, the people were in place to make reintroduction a reality. Bruce Babbitt, the administration’s Secretary of Interior, Mollie Beattie, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Renee Askins, a highly motivated and articulate citizen champion of the wolf, formed the core triad that would return the wolf as a “nonessential experimental population” under the ESA. The reintroduction effort was a political as much as an ecological event.

The reintroduction was politically heavy handed and was seen across the west as a federal usurpation of property rights – real and implied. Conservative politicians knew an effective frame when they saw one and immediately, wolves were used as an expedient shortcut to garner support from rural interests and argue against broad based public land management. The most vocal opponents included the agricultural community who run livestock near the park boundary and property right advocates who saw the reintroduction as a way to move publicly subsidized ranchers off public lands. Wolves, they argue, threaten property rights when they cross over onto private land and kill livestock and even pets – sometimes viciously so. Hunters blame the wolves for decreased elk harvests and use them as an excuse to launch political attacks on wolf advocates.

Pro wolf supporters insist reintroduction simply restored the ecosystem to its former condition. They often point to regional and national polls that show respondents favored reintroduction 3 to 1. Those who favor wolves on the landscape present them as a symbol of wild places, ecological harmony, and even as a regional political entity. They depict the wolf as the embodiment of nature in all its forms especially as symbols of wilderness and empty spaces. Their stake in public land management is often for amenity and recreation values.

In reality, the anti-wolf position is the most current form of proxy for the perceived “war on the west” that has raged since the sagebrush rebellion of the 1970s and the wise use movement that followed. The controversy is one grounded in state vs. federal control over public lands and resources and wolf reintroduction efforts are simply the latest incarnation of the struggle to recover the commodity economy of the west. Oddly enough, the position of both candidates is very similar – to remove the wolf from the ESA list and let states manage them. They use the frame differently however.

Denny Rehberg sells himself as a rancher in the tradition of the west and so is an advocate for the commodity economy in all its forms – publicly subsidized mining, timber production, energy exploration, and ranching. In fact, he is a land developer but very effectively uses the “wolf frame” to argue for a public lands policy that favors production over conservation. That position would cut budgets for public land programs and result in smaller government. We can expect those positions to take front and center in the coming months.

Jon Tester is a farmer and teacher. His position on wolves, like his position on government in general, seems to be to pragmatically manage them as one would any other resource without political drama or hyperbole. The language in his plan to remove gray wolves from the ESA list framed the solution as reflecting “Montana values” with  “a responsible, common sense plan.” The tone for his campaign rhetoric will be “let’s live with the wolf as a neighbor – perhaps not one of our choice but one we are faced with”.

The wolf frame will appear explicitly and implicitly in many forms during the campaign - as it should. It is an efficient way to communicate with the constituencies of both parties. It is an effective use of imagery and theme. I would go so far as to say one’s position on wolf management is a predictor of how you will vote. Let’s watch as wolves to make their appearance in Montana politics over the next few months.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Montana Senate Race: Tester and Rehberg both raise $1.2 Million

Less than an hour apart, the Tester and Rehberg campaigns released their first quarter fundraising numbers for 2012. Both had impressive hauls and both raised essentially the same amount: $1.2 million. Tester raised about $9000 more than Rehberg to be exact. Senator Tester continues his string of $1 million dollar plus quarters, and Congressman Rehberg had his best quarter since he entered the race and transferred money from his House campaign account. More importantly, he nearly doubled his fundraising from the final quarter of 2011 when he only raised less than $660,000.

Hmmm....haven't I been saying this is going to be a costly election?

NRSC makes major early ad buys for November election - The Hill's Ballot Box

NRSC makes major early ad buys for November election - The Hill's Ballot Box

I picked up this article from Senator Tester's Facebook feed. Why is this important? Three reasons.

 1. It demonstrates how hard it will be to buy time in the fall with all the added interest group money coming into the state.The NRSC is tipping its hand early, which suggests that the need to lock up that time outweighs the risk of letting the candidates and the DSCC know what they're doing.

2. It will be harder for the candidates--especially those down ballot--to buy media time close to the election.

3. The amount the NRSC is committing to this race is enormous given the cost of advertising in Montana. In 2006, according to MSU-Billings political science professor Craig Wilson's chapter on the Tester-Burns race, the DSCC spent $1.9 million on television ads in support of Tester's bid to unseat Senator Conrad Burns. The NRSC that same year spent $608,000 on TV supporting Senator Burns' reelection bid. The volume of money of money being spent by the Republicans is indicative of how important they view this race to gaining the Senate majority. Records in Montana will be broken without a doubt.

If there's a big difference between the 2006 and 2012 Senate races, it's this: the sheer volume of money flooding into Montana and its unprecedented scale.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Two additional Ads for Tester Up Today

Senator Tester has launched two new television advertisements focusing on his work for veterans. This is a key group for Senator Tester--a group for which he's worked hard over the past five years, and this is key example of his efforts to expand his reelection constituency after his tight win in 2006. Here are the ads:

This first ad features Carla Lott, a Native American advocate for veterans. I'm fairly certain I saw her at a Veteran's Roundtable this past summer. This is what we call a testimonial advertisement. The great strength of this ad is you are hearing from an actual person who has been helped by Senator Tester and his work.

The second ad is from a town hall meeting about veteran's issues. Again, this highlights the work Senator Tester has done for veterans, and provides a variety of endorsements from newspapers testifying to his work.

Veterans are key group for Senator Tester, so I'm not surprised that these issues would be highlighted in positive spots immediately following Senator Tester's "Combine" spot emphasizing his rural roots and work as an active farmer. Also note that these ads are much more substantive in terms of issues than his first spot. This is ad buy is about the same amount as the first buy, in the $60,000 range.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Baucus, a Poll, and High on the Hog--Oh my!

Lots of developments in Montana in the past 48 hours.

First, Senator Max Baucus recently announced that he's running for re-election in 2014 and has purchased $25,000 in radio ads to be aired...wait...THIS WEEK in several markets throughout the state. Read the story here. More on this below.

Second, a new poll is out in the Montana Race that is actually taking place this year shows...wait...A Rehberg lead within the margin of error. Again, the races is: too close to call. Here's that Rasmussen poll (with all the qualifiers from my previous posts about Rasmussen).

Third, AP had an article in Montana papers two days ago slamming both Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg for living "high on the hog" by staying in fancy hotels and eating expensive meals, which are picked up by their campaign accounts. Read that piece here.

Whew! Where to start? I think we'll start with Montana's senior senator, Max Baucus. According to news accounts, the ad stresses his role in the payroll tax extension and features a testimonial from a prominent Republican businessman.

In an earlier post, I asked whether the Tester television ads were put up too early--and came to the conclusion that they were not. Well, I can certainly say that if Senator Baucus is putting up radio ads in 2012 for an election in 2014, that can only signal trouble. Not that it is a secret...Senator Baucus' approval ratings have been on downward slide since 2008. Last year's Billings Gazette poll found his approval rating at only 38 percent, certainly not encouraging for someone hoping to get reelected. Clearly, the radio ad is meant to stem that downward spiral and help Montanans remember why they've elected him for so long: he has political clout, seniority, and is often the pivotal voter in the Senate. His central position politically is only accentuated by Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson's impending retirement. Even if Democrats lose the majority, Republicans will not gain a filibuster proof majority--and will be looking to cut deals with conservative Democrats like Baucus.

All of that said, I'm shocked--shocked--that Senator Baucus would insert his reelection into the conversation during an already competitive Senate election. I'm not sure how this benefits Senator Tester--it merely detracts from his media message and his efforts. I'm puzzling through this one and coming up empty.

On the Tester-Rehberg poll, there's not much to be said. The race is close--we already knew that. Perhaps the one thing worth mentioning is this is the first poll taken after the emergence of two Libertarian candidates. And, interestingly, these candidates poll about 6 percent of the vote. Of course, with a margin of error at 4.5 percent, support for a third party candidate could be as low as 1.5 percent or as high as 10.5 percent. But note that only THREE percent of voters did not express a clear choice. Lots of money will be spent trying to help those voters figure things out (and lots of money will be spent making sure those who have already made up their minds get out and vote). Another Montana blogger, James Conner, crunched the numbers in this year's Tester-Rehberg polling and compared them to the Burns-Tester race in 2006. He concludes that the patterns might suggest some concern about Senator Tester's reelection. You can read his analysis here.

Finally, the AP piece on campaign expenditures and reimbursements. The piece essential puts a pox on both Republican and Democratic houses, suggesting neither candidate is the frugal, average guy they purport to be. I guess, as an observer of politics, my reaction was "meh". When individuals travel on business, they get reimbursed for their travel and meals. What's all the fuss about? If a candidate travels on campaign business, they get their expenses reimbursed. Sometimes some expensive meals might happen at a fundraiser. Sometimes the fundraiser is held at a nice hotel to encourage big donors, and you have to pay a large amount for a room in a hotel that is in a good location.

The fuss is, of course, is that both Rehberg and Tester represent Montana. And Montana is a poor state that is not too kind about others making too much money or looking like they have gotten too far ahead of the Joneses. This is especially true when it seems that public figures are profiting from their public position. In another state, this type of story might never have been noticed or even written. But in a state--and in a race--where that "one of us" connection is so important and a contestable point between the candidates, this article seems to suggest that neither Senator Tester nor Congressman Rehberg are as "one of us" as they would have us believe.

Is that a problem? Politically, it might be. While it doesn't bother me much that a member of Congress might have a nice dinner at fundraiser once in a while or stay at a nice hotel, I can see why it might upset folks who can barely make ends meet. And even if though these bills and reimbursements are standard operating procedure in campaigns (and, from my limited experience, they are), one thing that both candidates might do to avoid negative press in the future is to apply the government travel and meals reimbursement limits to their campaign travel, too. At the very least, this would avoid a story like the one that appeared in the paper this morning, which draws attention away from their core themes and messages. In the end, however, the story serves to increase the cynicism of voters and as someone who studies Congress, I'm not sure we need to be doing much of that right now.