Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Quist Withdraws From MontanaPBS Debate

U.S. House Candidates Greg Gianforte (L) and Rob Quist (R).
Corin Cates-Carney/Josh Burnham
MontanaPBS had been planning a statewide televised debate between Gianforte and Quist on May 1, but on Monday, that plan fell apart.

At this point, there’s only one debate booked in the race for Montana’s U.S. House seat. Early voting starts May 1, the last day to vote is May 25. Montana Television Network has booked Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte for a debate April 29.

MontanaPBS had been planning a statewide televised debate between Gianforte and Quist on May 1, but on Monday, that plan fell apart.

MontanaPBS TV Producer John Twiggs says that his organization contacted both campaigns on March 7, the day after the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions in Helena, and invited them to a:

"Statewide televised debate that was also going to be simulcast on Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. Then, for the next three weeks after that, it was the normal discussions about the day and the time and the location, and the format, and all of those were agreed to in the affirmative."

At that point, Twiggs says, he felt like he had a verbal commitment from each campaign to do the debate:

"Everyone had agreed to all the terms at that point, and what I pressed for at that point was the final commitment, that we get this in writing. And I get that from Gianforte’s campaign on Monday, go to the Quist campaign, and they declined the offer."

Tina Olechowski is communications director for Rob Quist’s campaign.

"Yeah, honestly it was a timing thing," Olechowski says. "May 1 is when the early vote starts, and also it came down to timing. Rob is participating in a debate two days earlier at MTN News, May 1 the early vote starts, and Rob will be going out there talking to voters as the ballots drop. That being said, we’re absolutely looking at all the different debate options — talking to Billings Gazette about doing one in Billings potentially, with audience participation, looking at Bozeman as well."

Greg Gianforte’s campaign was quick to pounce on the Quist campaign's withdrawal from the MontanaPBS debate. Shane Scanlon is communications director for Greg Gianforte:

"We're proud of the fact that we've accepted two debates in such a short timeframe. We think that's pretty good. I think it's unfortunate that Rob Quist won't participate in that MontanaPBS debate. He's denying Montanans an opportunity to hear where he stands on the issues."

Both campaigns are accusing the other of hiding from voters. Quist's side says Gianforte isn't doing public events like they are, and Gianforte's side says Quist is ducking debates.

I asked both campaign communications directors multiple times how many debates they think Montana voters need to make informed voting decisions, and neither would give a straight answer. Both said they want to do more debates than the one currently scheduled, but neither would say how many they think are appropriate.

Gianforte communications manager Shane Scanlon:

"We're gonna continue to look at other opportunities and other debates and other requests for joint appearances that might be out there. The fact of the matter we can't do every debate because of this compressed timeframe," Scanlon says.

Here’s Rob Quist’s Campaign Communications Director Tina Olechowski.

"Honestly, we are looking at every single debate. We're happy to debate as much as we can with the opponents. But at the same time, what we're doing, what Rob Quist is doing is he's going out there talking to Montanans. He has been to over 40 counties doing rallies, doing town halls across the state."

MontanaPBS's John Twiggs has been organizing and conducting candidate debates in the state for 20 years. He says that arranging them is rarely as easy as simply inviting the candidates and offering them free statewide airtime. Twiggs says it's common for negotiations on debate dates, times and formats to continue for weeks, and then suddenly break down:

"Absolutely. We've been through this many times, and I think what everybody has to remember is, at the end of the day, there's only one goal for the campaign, and that's to win. And so, when they surmise and look at our offer they decide whether that's going to help their candidate win or not, and if they think it will, they'll accept, and if the don't think it will, they'll decline. And then the reasons around that are just noise at that point," Twiggs says.

MontanaPBS and Montana Public Radio are both licensed to state board of regents.

For analysis of how the Gianforte and Quist campaigns are approaching debates in the special election, tune in to Capitol Talk with Sally Mauk on Montana Public Radio Friday at 6:35 p.m. or anytime on our website.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information
Related Content