Friday, November 23, 2007

Notes on the governor's fundraising letter

We've already had Ed Kemmick handicap the quality of the quotations in the Gazette article about the governor's campaign sending a certain fundraising letter to people who had contributed reportable amounts to Republican candidates for governor in 2004.

And we've had LITW label the GOP reaction as "hysterical," sort of missing the point that Roy Brown, for instance, was reporting on the reaction he was getting from Republican faithful, rather than saying anything negative himself about it.

As Bob Brown (one of the former candidates whose donors were hit up) pointed out, there is nothing illegal whatsoever about the letter. Nor is there anything unethical about it. Fundraising data is public information, and the governor's campaign simply used that public information.

What was unusual about the letter wasn't having Democrats hit up Republicans for money -- we get on Dem fundraising direct-mail lists all the time. What was odd was having a sitting governor send a letter to those who funded his opponents, telling them in the first sentence that his campaign had taken note not only of whom they had contributed to, but exact amounts.

It is one thing to be put on a mailing list, and quite another to have something of that specificity coming from a governor. Again, there was nothing illegal or unethical about the letter, which was written in a nice, friendly sort of way. It was just unusual.

The reactions that we heard from those who received the letter were absolutely as negative as Roy Brown said he was getting from people he has met on the campaign trail since then. But the letter was a sort of Rorschach test.

Those who claimed to have personal knowledge of the governor's strong-arming ways saw the letter as vaguely menacing -- "I know where you live, I know you gave to my opponent, and how much."

We'd be interested to know if anyone else has seen this tactic before: a large-scale letter sent by a candidate in one party to supporters of the opposition, reminding them that what they give is public information.

Anyway, those who had contributed to Pat Davison's campaign felt they were being reminded that they had contributed money to a convicted felon.

Those who have a visceral dislike for John Bohlinger saw the prominent featuring of Bohlinger's name and the emphasis on the "bipartisan ticket" as yet one more example of cynical game-playing on Bohlinger's part, messing with the party he claims to belong to even as he works to defeat its candidates up and down the ticket.

And so forth.

Most expressed a determination to respond by sending a check to Roy Brown.

Surprisingly few mentioned the letter's citation of the goofy Gazette online poll that showed the governor with a 75% to 25% "lead" over Roy Brown, which was a bit concerning, since it perhaps shows a lack of knowledge about the complete unscientific nature of online polling of this kind.

Anyone who believes that the governor is going to carry a majority in the coverage area of the Gazette -- let alone win it by a 3 to 1 margin -- is of course welcome to do so, or to believe any other sort of foolishness.

What is also interesting is that the Gazette itself, which is quick to point out that its own online polling "unscientific" (put differently, "for entertainment purposes only") didn't mention this aspect of the letter, and point out that on-line polling has no scientific validity.

Will the letter be successful? To a certain extent, it can hardly not be successful. A few people may send a check the governor's way (although that could hardly have been the main point,) and some may feel a bit unnerved and decide not to give to Roy Brown, having been reminded that someone in Helena is watching. If you are someone who believes those stories about political opponents getting tax audits and what-not, then you might decide to put your money elsewhere -- or maybe just leave it in the bank.

But for every dollar "gained" by one of those two ways, ticked-off Republicans will probably give several more to Brown's campaign, wiping out any real advantage. So money couldn't be the main point.

The main value of the letter was rather, surely, to test the Brown campaign -- to see if it will be reactive rather than pro-active. If Brown's history of campaigning is any indication, he will stick to his campaign strategy and for the most part ignore this sort of stunt.

The governor's campaign was out for a reaction -- preferably an over-reaction that it can point to either as a sign of unreasonableness or of weakness (depending on the audience to whom the over-reaction is being pointed out.)

As LITW pointed out, "independents are watching."

Republicans in general would do well to remember that attacking the governor -- especially in a reactive way -- has never worked. Name one thing it has ever accomplished. One.

He's just too good at that sort of jujitsu.

Yes, the campaign for governor will have to involve Republicans answering -- calmly -- the Democratic charges against Brown, and pointing out -- matter-of-factly -- what the current administration has done wrong and what it has failed to do right.

But to the extent that the race turns into Republicans being drawn into a three-ring circus, it is only to our disadvantage. When someone is clowning around, usually ignoring the act is the best way to get them to quit.


Anonymous said...

You are right. This isn't illegal, but it does have its creepy side to it. By citing the specific amount the person gave to the earlier campaign, it seems to be saying: we know exactly what you did in the past, and we can make things difficult for you if you don't play ball with us now.

Montana Headlines said...

Again, this may be something that is commonly done elsewhere in the country (although we've not heard of it,) but it at least seems to be a first for Montana.

I wonder how it would have been received had George Bush sent out a similar letter to big Al Gore donors a year out from the 2004 election.

I suspect that not a few on the left would have seen it as a way for W to remind said donors that he controls the IRS, the DOJ, etc. and that he can make life miserable for those who oppose him.

That is not to say that the governor's intent was to threaten, or that W's would have been to threaten. In both cases, they might honestly be reaching out to broaden their support financially -- especially given the fact that bigger donors often make a point of contributing to the candidate most likely to win.

In both cases, though, the both the governor and the president must know that there are those who suspect them of misusing government agencies for personal political purposes. So it would make sense to avoid anything that could be portrayed as intimidation.

For instance, the governor's letter could just as easily have said something like -- we know that you have supported the Republican party in the past, but here's why we think you should consider voting for us, and even contributing to our campaign.

Without the specific reported information about the candidate to whom the contribution was given and the specific amount given, I don't think we'd even be discussing this as a possible aspect of the letter.

Anonymous said...

This issue makes me think of something that came up earlier, believe it or not, when you talked about the story about Sen. Tester cutting in line. Ed Kemmick was right to say that there was a big difference between butting in line and and the MSM stories about Burns and his racist comments. But Burns also got bad press for bullying firefighters, flight attendants and the like.

When I've talked to friends who work for the state in Helena, they say this sort of thing goes on with the governor often and they are surprised it gets so little coverage in the press. It has been hinted about to some degree, but the most direct thing I remember was a column by George Ochenski(?) in the Missoula Independent.

This fundraising letter also fits in with another thing they mention.... that while the press lets the governor get away with portraying himself as bipartisan, he pressures state employees who don't have the "right politics" so he can replace them with political allies....

I haven't figured out why the press is reluctant to write about these things... if they are intimidated by him or if they are happy to have Democrat in the governor's office..... maybe it is a combo.

It will be interesting to see if the Tribune's hiring of John Adams as their Helena correspondent will change the dynamics in Helena. He's the Missoula Independent guy, I believe who broke the Walt Schweitzer story, so we know he's willing to take on the powers that be. Maybe his being there will create some greater competition and more vigorus reporting. We can all hope.

Montana Headlines said...

All good questions and points. We have no direct knowledge of any bullying that goes on behind the scenes, but one would indeed think that these would be the kinds of stories that would sell a lot of newspapers.

It is indeed odd that the press and editorial boards never comment on the contrast between the bipartisan claims and the highly partisan appointment process. There is nothing wrong or unusual with appointing political allies, as long as they are qualified -- but a truly bipartisan administration would be far less aggressive about it.

Look at the way he went to the wall to force Stan Boone onto the Board of Livestock in spite of the fact that all of the brand inspectors protested having someone with Boone's record on the board.

But it paid off -- in the recent decision by the Board to back down on the governor's brucellosis plan, only Boone stuck by the governor's split-state plan. The governor knew exactly what he was getting in Boone, and was willing to do what it took to get it. Forget bipartisanship.

Anonymous said...

I think most people who follow politics expect a governor to make partisan appointments to exempt jobs and to boards, but it is the effort to move political allies into merit jobs that bothers a lot of people, i'm told.