Candidates for one of Montana’s U.S. Senate seats faced off Monday night in a debate hosted by MontanaPBS. The candidates traded barbs over how to approach a range of timely issues, including the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, health care and coronavirus response.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines and current Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock began the debate sparring over the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Falling in line with the Republican caucus, Daines said it’s his constitutional duty to consider President Donald Trump’s nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett. He says a robust second amendment could ride on her confirmation.
“We’ve got to have justices that understand they can’t threaten our way of life here in Montana," Daines said.
Daines said it’s vital to confirm a justice who will interpret laws, not try to make them.
Echoing congressional Democrats, Bullock has said the Senate should wait until after the January inauguration to fill Ginsburg’s seat. He criticized Daines for not following the precedent set in 2016 when Republicans blocked President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee nearly nine months before the election.
“This year he’s completely flip flopped on that. So we have to do what we can to take politics out of the Supreme Court," Bullock said.
Bullock suggested the Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court will consider in November, could be at risk with Barret’s confirmation.
The battle over Ginsburg’s replacement has placed the Senate’s partisan composition under a microscope. In one of the most closely watched Senate races in the nation, Democrats hope Bullock can help the party regain its first majority since 2015.
Bullock said Daines, who has supported repeal and replacement of the ACA, is beholden to pharmaceutical companies and other special interests. He touted his role as governor expanding Medicaid coverage in Montana, which covers eight percent of the state’s population.
“I’ll fight to make sure that everybody has access to affordable care. I’ll take on the prescription drug companies and I won’t let anybody take your health care away,” Bullock said.
Daines said the ACA, which led to Medicaid expansion, has raised the price of health care premiums. He said Montanans with pre-existing conditions should have access to affordable coverage, though he didn’t say how we would guarantee such protections if the ACA is struck down.
In a common theme throughout the debate, Daines said Bullock’s health care priorities are informed by high-profile Democrats. The senator portrayed himself as a check on their power.
“What I’m most concerned about is the direction D.C. is headed. You put Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden in charge of Washington D.C., you’re going to see a federal takeover of the health care system," Daines said.
Meanwhile, Bullock criticized the federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. He said Congress has failed to provide leadership on testing amid the reopening of K-12 schools and universities, and has appropriated business relief funds without adequate transparency.
Daines said the Bullock administration has been slow to distribute $1.2 billion in federal CARES Act relief dollars to local governments. According to the Bullock campaign, about $420 million has been distributed to local communities, while more than 80 percent has been allocated.
“Whose bank account is it in right now? It’s in the state’s bank account. It has not been actually transferred and delivered to so many communities across Montana that are hurting," Daines said.
CARES Act funds must be spent by Dec. 30.
Daines criticized the statewide mask mandate Bullock instituted in July. He said mask wearing is a matter of personal responsibility that should be left up to local communities. Daines also said Bullock should have done more to allow spectators at high school sports. Currently, that decision’s up to local health officials.
Bullock accused Daines of politicizing a scientific matter. He said mask wearing is the best way to curb the virus’ spread before a vaccine is ready. Though Bullock acknowledged case totals are rising, he said preventative measures have kept Montana in a good position relative to other states.
“I don’t strive to be South Dakota. When I see well over 100 people dead from this, every one of those should weigh on all Montanans," Bullock said.
Moderators also questioned the candidates on a range of other topics, including climate change. Bullock said elected officials need to focus on both reducing greenhouse gases and more closely managing forests. While acknowledging humans’ role in climate change, Daines placed a greater emphasis on forest management to mitigate wildfire risk.
When asked, Bullock said he supported further research on gun violence. Daines framed shootings as a mental health problem.
After eight years, Bullock is now termed out of the governor’s office. The Helena resident also served one term as Montana’s attorney general before becoming governor. Daines, from Bozeman, is seeking his second term in the Senate. Before winning the seat in 2014, he served one term as Montana’s sole U.S. House representative.
The Montana Television Network will host Bullock and Daines for a third and final debate Oct. 10.
Election Day is November 3.