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Democratic House candidates talk policy, trade barbs at Missoula forum

Graphic: 2022 Montana elections

Democratic candidates competing for Montana’s western U.S. House seat talked policy and traded barbs Wednesday night at a forum hosted by Missoula County Democrats.

All three primary candidates – Monica Tranel, Tom Winter and Cora Neumann – fielded questions about their plans to address Montana’s affordable housing crisis, climate change and competing against a Republican opponent in the general election.

A Democrat has not held a Montana U.S. House seat since 1997.

With days before primary ballots are mailed to voters, the candidates are increasingly trying to seperate themselves from the other party members.

Neumann is a public health expert who works in the nonprofit sector.

“My opponent Monica Tranel has a super PAC that’s running lies and ads against me on TV. And while she claims to also stand against money in politics, she has not spoken up and condemned these lies on TV,” Neumann said.

A super PAC is a political committee that can solicit and spend unlimited sums of money, but cannot contribute directly to, or coordinate with, political candidates.

Tranel, a longtime energy and agriculture attorney, responded that the super PAC is not under her control. She said Neumann could correct any information she thinks is inaccurate.

“We can move on because I think the people here want to hear where we are on the issues, and not the ad hominem attacks,” Tranel said.

Neumann has far outraised her primary candidates in political fundraising, with $1.2 million in the bank. Tranel is second in funding with $675,000 and Winter, a former state legislator who works in broadband, has raised $95,000.

On policy issues, all three candidates agreed the federal government should allocate more money to fund affordable housing initiatives, that Congress should pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and reinstate the expanded child tax credit to boost low income families.

When asked why they decided to run for public office, Winter answered it was the recent fight over the renewal for the state’s health coverage program for low income adults, Medicaid expansion. Some conservatives advocated to end the program.

“Seeing the possibility of a small, committed minority of bigots and people who dislike the poor, simply because they are poor, try to take more from them than has already been taken made me want to be a public servant in this state,” he said.

Winter has distinguished himself in the race by embracing the more progressive wing of the party, including his support for subsidized health coverage for all Americans.

Tranel said she decided to run for office after participating in the Women’s March in Helena with her three daughters in 2017, shortly after former President Donald Trump took office.

“Something inside me shifted. And I understood that democracy happens because we make it happen. We show up and we act and we participate. But we have to give people someone to vote for.”

Neumann talked about the death of father when she was an infant, her mom’s struggle to take care of her two kids after that and her stepdad’s challenge finding steady work.

“So I’ve been motivated to serve at the community level and now to run for office because I am committed to making sure that other families don’t have to face the pain and struggle that my family went through.”

The candidates agree addressing climate change should be a top priority for Congress. Tranel and Winter urged for more investments in renewable energy. Neumann advocated for conserving public lands and researching clean agricultural practices.

In their final remarks for the night, the candidates were asked how they plan to beat Republican primary candidate Ryan Zinke, who’s the presumed front-runner in the GOP primary race. Zinke previously represented Montana in Congress and was later appointed as Secretary of the Interior by former President Donald Trump.

Winter said that if he wins the primary, his progressive political stances will turn the tide on the more than 20 year losing streak for Montana Democrats seeking the House seat.

“We don’t lose here because we are bad at it, we don’t lose because our hearts aren’t in it, we only lose because we have lost the narrative. If we win this primary, we win against Zinke because we have found what it means to bring dignity to our communities and politics again.”

Neumann said her campaign is the only campaign keeping pace with Zinke’s, which has blown all other candidates out of the water in fundraising with $2.5 million. She talked about endorsements from lawmakers, union and tribal leaders.

“We’ll continue to build that support and to build a district wide groundswell that money can’t address," Neumann said. "That’s the grassroots organizing and coalition building I’ve done throughout my career and that I will do to beat Ryan Zinke.”

Tranel said she’ll work to build bridges with Republican voters who may be on the fence. She said she’ll draw on her experience running for the Public Service Commission in 2020 when she lost, but still won more votes than any other Democratic candidate in her district that year.

“There is no path to victory on a Democrat-only platform. We’ve got to have the persuadable voters, we have to energize our base – it’s both.”

The primary election is on June 7.

Listen to 2022 primary candidate interviews

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