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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana's House Candidates Face Off In Final Debate Before Election Day

Graphic: Montana Public Radio News, Politics

Three hopefuls for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives sparred in Great Falls last night, in theirlast debate before election day.

On stage left, incumbent Republican Ryan Zinke. Next to him, Democrat Denise Juneau, current superintendent of public instruction. And stage right, Libertarian Rick Breckenridge, a surveyor from Proctor. Breckenridge replaced the party’s original candidate, Mike Fellows, who died in a car crash leaving a campaign event two weeks ago.

Wednesday night marked the first time this election season when a third party candidate joined Zinke and Juneau in a public debate.

Rick Breckenridge introduced himself to voters by asking them to change the pattern of their elected leaders and vote Libertarian.

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results," Breckenridge said. "This panel tonight is going to pose questions that are the direct cause and effect of the policy and decisions of the two party system that we have."

In the 2012 U.S. House race, the Libertarian candidate drew just over four percent of the vote.

During the debate, Democrat Denise Juneau continued to paint herself as the underdog success story, using her familiar campaign line, going from Head Start in Billings to Harvard.

Juneau criticized Ryan Zinke’s work during his first term, saying he was too focused on trying to get into the White House. She pitched herself as a better representative for the  concerns of Montanans.

"We have one voice for one million Montanans in this U.S. House race. That voice should be someone who has a record of accomplishment, who is working shoulder to shoulder with communities across this state to get things done," Juneau said, "and I’d be honored to serve as your next congresswomen for the state of Montana."

Zinke worked at de-legitimizing Juneau’s attacks on his record throughout the evening, calling some of them plain false, saying he’s always worked for every Montanan.

"It doesn't matter to me whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or independent. I represent Montana, because I love my country. I love my state. I understand the responsibly of making sure everyone in this room has an equal say in the future," said Zinke.

The only audience question of the night dove a little deeper into how each candidate would support and represent the rights of all Montana citizens. Each candidate was asked what they would do to support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual individuals.

Zinke said it wasn’t his job to tell someone what to think or what to do.

"And so I do support you," Zinke said. "If you want to be lesbian, if you want to be Muslim, if you want to be whatever, it doesn't matter to me. [Members of the crowd boo] It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in Montana. And it doesn't really matter in this election because Montanans generally aren’t that way.  What is important is that you have the right to be you."

Libertarian Rick Breckenridge agreed.

"Welcome to the Libertarian party," Breckenridge replied. "We’ve only been advocating that since 1971. Ladies and gentlemen, what we had said was keep the government out of our bedrooms. Keep the government off our constitution. And keep the government off what we ingest into our bodies. Alright?"

For Democrat Denise Juneau, the state’s first openly lesbian candidate for Congress, the question about how to support LGBT rights was like an easy putt.

"Step one, get elected," Juneau said to cheers from the audience.

Juneau and Zinke said during the debate that they support public lands and oppose movements to transfer federal land to states; and that they support the second amendment. The two candidates continued attacks from over the campaign season on those issues, each trying to portray their opponent negatively.

They also both said that although the massive coal-fired power plant in Colstrip is slated for partial shut down in the coming decade, coal will remain a part of Montana’s future, along with ways to burn it more cleanly.

Although this was the last public debate in the U.S. House race, the two main party candidates have been stepping up their attacks in TV ads, each running a half a dozen ads in the last month. 

In Great Falls Wednesday night, Juneau’s campaign sent out an email declaring victory in the debate 60 seconds after it was over. About 30 minutes later, a post appeared on Zinke’s website claiming the win.

You can listen to full debate here, and find more coverage of the this year’s elections here.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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