HELENA — In the race to be Montana’s next state auditor, Republican Matt Rosendale, a state senator from Glendive, is leading Democrat Jesse Laslovich, chief legal counsel in the office he’s running for, by 10 percentage points with a lot of voters undecided.
Rosendale holds 43 percent of the vote to Laslovich’s 33, with 24 percent unsure how they will cast their ballots. The poll, commissioned by Lee Newspapers, included 1,003 registered and likely voters contacted from Oct. 10 through 12 by landline and cellphone.
The state auditor is a deceptively titled office. It does not audit anything, but regulates insurance companies and securities and prosecutes fraud cases. There have been two failed efforts to change the name in the state Constitution to the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance.
Officeholder Monica Lindeen, a Democrat, is term-limited from running again and is a candidate for secretary of state.
Rosendale said he hasn’t paid much attention to polling. “I try to block it out of my mind and continue to do my work,” he said Wednesday.
Laslovich said he wasn’t surprised by the results. The poll went out as his campaign was ramping up, he said. “Our TV ads started running, we did our mail then."
The high percentage of undecideds could come from a lack of understanding what the auditor does and unfamiliarity with the candidates, said Lee Banville, a political researcher and journalism professor at the University of Montana.
“A lot of these races oftentimes come down to, ‘Do I recognize that name, do I know what party they’re with?’” he said.
Rosendale has been in the state Senate since 2012, became majority leader in the 2015 legislative session and ran for Congress, so voters could be more aware of who he is. Laslovich was a state representative from 2000-2004 and a state senator from 2004-2010 representing Anaconda. He ran for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2012 and was defeated by Pam Bucy.
Like many other statewide races, this one could all come down to how Independents — 27 percent haven’t settled on an auditor candidate — vote.
“Even more than people that identify with one party or another, they seem up for grabs,” Banville said. Independents are leaning toward Rosendale, with 44 percent supporting him over 29 percent for Laslovich, a 15-point difference.
If the 2016 election for State Auditor were held today, who would you vote for?
About a quarter of Republicans are undecided, which may speak to hesitation among party members to unite behind a candidate, said University of Montana political scientist Christopher Muste.
Rosendale said he and other statewide Republican candidates who could end up serving on the Land Board are campaigning together in an effort to build party cohesion. The board is made up of the five statewide elected officials (governor, secretary of state, attorney general, auditor and superintendent of public instruction) who manage state trust lands to benefit schools.
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“I don’t know that anybody has done that in the recent past to show the Land Board, all five of the candidates, going out and saying we are united,” he said. “When you’re going to different offices around the state and the volunteers are there, and they see that there’s unity, that helps them and they see our enthusiasm. It basically creates that synergy.”
Laslovich said Independents are concerned about the Land Board preserving access to the outdoors and plans to push that issue hard in the weeks before Election Day.
“That’s why we feel very strongly once people learn about my position on public access … that those Independents will turn out for us,” he said.
Muste said while Rosendale has a “commanding lead, Laslovich can still come from behind if he makes a really strong campaign push.”
Banville said Laslovich can do that buy making a strong argument Rosendale doesn’t have the experience to be the state auditor and highlight his endorsements, including from the Chamber of Commerce, which typically endorses Republicans.
Laslovich should talk more about his record of prosecution in fraud cases and point to work he’s done to help people who are fighting insurance companies, Banville said. But a lot of those past successes are insider-ish and wonky, such as participating in an expansion of Medicaid that rolled out better here than in some states. “That’s not the stuff that fits well on a bumper sticker.”
Both pundits said Rosendale has done well by railing against the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.
“That resonates with a lot of Montanans, both Independents and obviously Republicans, but also small businesses, folks forced to go out on the small market and purchase health care. He can hit that message hard,” Banville said.
Up until Election Day, Rosendale said he will continue to travel around the state talking to voters. “It’s critical to make sure you’re out in front of folks. I really am pleased with the positive message we’ve been able to bring forward,” he said.
Laslovich’s approach is the same. “We’ll be on TV with the rest of the candidates. I hope that resonates with people. It’s on the ground too,” he said, adding he and other Democrats will hold get-out-the-vote events around Eastern Montana soon.
“The consumer protection element, the broad support we’ve gotten from organizations throughout the state, that will resonate with people,” he said. “The only poll that matters is Nov. 8.”
To pull off a comeback, Laslovich needs to make sure Democrats vote in his contest, Banville said.
“I think this is one of those races where a lot of it rides on, for Laslovich, Democrats understanding what’s at stake with this office, it could be switching out of their party’s control. If they’re a Democratic voter and casting their ballot they have to make sure they’re filling out that circle.”