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Dems scrap over PAC ad in Missoula forum

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Winter, Neumann and Tranel

Tom Winter, Cora Neumann and Monica Tranel, from left, attend a forum for Democrats running for the newly created western Montana U.S. House district on May 11 in Missoula.

MISSOULA — Two of the Democrats running in the primary for the newly created western Montana U.S. House district had a sharp exchange during a forum here Wednesday night over an ad paid for by a political action committee and running on TV stations in the district.

The race is between Cora Neumann, a Bozeman nonprofit executive who has focused on public health issues; Monica Tranel, a Missoula lawyer who has experience in the energy and natural resources sectors; and Tom Winter, a former state lawmaker from Missoula who works to expand access to broadband.

The ad says two of the candidates running for the seat "are from California" and cites a home owned by Republican candidate Ryan Zinke's wife in Santa Barbara and a California house Neumann sold in 2020.

“Just because you’re wealthy does not mean you should have undue influence on our elections,” Neumann said during the forum in response to a question about voting access. “Unfortunately, my opponent Monica Tranel has a super PAC that’s running lies and ads against me.”

A political action committee, or PAC, called Montanans for a Better Congress is running the TV spot that started May 6 and airs through the primary in support of Tranel. The PAC reported spending $109,000 to run the ad.

By law PACs and candidates cannot coordinate to support a campaign.

Tranel quickly countered Neumann during the forum hosted by Missoula County Democrats.

“By definition, a super-PAC isn’t mine,” Tranel said. “And anything that’s not true you could surely correct. If there is something that’s not true, Cora, then point out what it is. But it’s not mine.”

Neumann told Tranel she could also object to the ad, though Neumann did not say during the forum specifically what was incorrect.

“While she claims to also stand against money in politics, she has not spoken up and condemned these lies on TV,” Neumann said.

Neumann’s campaign has said her family moved to Bozeman when she was an infant and lived there until the financial recession in the 1980s forced the family to move elsewhere. She returned in 2019 and said a large amount of her extended family also lives in the area. The PAC ad shows a screenshot of Neumann’s financial disclosure form when she was a Senate candidate in the 2020 primary showing she sold a house in California in early 2020.

Tranel ended the exchange by saying "We can move on because I think the people here want to hear about the issues and not the ad hominem attacks."

Tranel has drawn contrasts to Neumann in her campaign, with Tranel highlighting her childhood growing up in eastern Montana, family ties around the state and majority of career spent in Montana.

While so far in the primary Democrats have mostly focused on attacking the expected winner of the Republican primary, former congressman and past Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the forum Wednesday marked a change in tone.

“We do not as Democrats need to be taking each other down at a time so delicate in our history,” Neumann said. “We need to be talking about issues that matter to Montanans.”

In her rebuttal, Tranel said Neumann was the one waging a “personal attack we said we weren’t going to be doing.”

Montanans for a Better Congress is registered as a type of tax-exempt organization often called a "super PAC," which can raise and spend unlimited money.

While super PACs must disclose donors, they often raise money from other types of nonprofits or corporations that are allowed to obscure the source of funding.

Montanans for a Better Congress formed the day after the most recent federal reporting deadline, meaning it won't have to file a comprehensive disclosure report with the Federal Election Commission for at least two more weeks. PACs are required to report communications within 48 hours of broadcast if they spent at least $10,000 on them.

The dispute between Neumann and Tranel came during responses to a question about how to increase access to voting, and in their answers all candidates said they supported the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Winter pointed to a bill he tried to pass in the state Legislature that would have allowed for online voter registration and said his understanding of the GOP opposition that killed it would make him equipped to push back against efforts to limit access to the polls in Congress. He also said his campaign would not accept money from PACS or companies and groups associated with fossil fuels.

As part of her answer, Neumann also said she wanted to see the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision reversed because money played too large a role in campaigns.

Neumann is the frontrunner when it comes to fundraising for the race, having pulled in more than $1,172,000 over the race. That compares to Tranel’s $675,150 and Winter’s nearly $85,000.

Tranel said she also wanted to see campaign finance reform, adding that 80% of contributions to her campaign have come from Montana residents.

“Nobody else can come close to that in this race,” Tranel said.

Neumann said while she was also opposed to the role money plays in elections, the Democrat who emerges from the primary needs to be able to take on Zinke, who has raised more than $2.4 million over the campaign.

"I'm building a really strong campaign," Neumann said. " ... We're keeping pace with Ryan Zinke. ... We are building an operation that can absolutely win."

Winter emphasized that he's the only candidate who has won an election in Montana, and told the crowd he did it in a district that favored Trump in his presidential elections.

"I won a district that voted for Trump plus 11 points, held by a Republican, the (state) speaker of the House's son. I did that in our backyard, just over there. I don't have to reinvent the wheel," Winter said.

Wednesday was the second time the candidates all appeared together at a public forum. They are set to again share a virtual stage Thursday evening in a forum hosted by Western Native Voice. Another is set for May 20 in Bozeman and hosted by Gallatin County Democrats.

Absentee ballots hit the mail Friday for the June 7 primary.

— Reporter Sam Wilson contributed to this story.

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