Last night, for the second time in less than a week, the candidates for Montana’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives met to debate, arguing policy and social issues, and making their case to voters.
Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows was invited, but unable to attend because of health issues.
Over the course of the hour-long event, the candidates were peppered with questions on local and international issues by reporters from Yellowstone Public Radio, the Billings Gazette and KULR TV.
Both Zinke and Juneau expressed support for Montana’s coal industry, and developing the state’s natural resources.
Juneau highlighted her recent votes as evidence.
"I've taken votes on the State Land Board that are pro-coal, pro-oil and gas, pro all of the above and I stand by that record."
Zinke attacked Juneau’s record, citing her vote against leasing state owned coal in the Otter Creek coal tracts.
“When my opponent says she is pro-coal I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. Affordable energy is critical to Montana and we have to protect that."
Zinke has been a strong supporter of the Crow Tribe’s plans to develop a new mine that would export coal via a port on the West Coast. He attacked Juneau for taking a campaign contribution from Washington’s Lummi Tribe, which successfully fought the port. Juneau fired back by pointing out that she’s won the endorsement of the Crow Tribe, and that Zinke has taken contributions from coal interests.
Stepping into potential international impacts on the state, Zinke and Juneau were asked about their stance on bringing in Syrian refugees to Montana.
“In all theses issues we need to always make sure that American safety is looked at first. My understanding is that vetting process takes up to two years. That is thoroughly vetted by multiple federal agencies and at the end of the day we have to remember that as Americans we also have a humanitarian side.”
Zinke also said keeping America safe is the priority, but says he supported legislation to improve the vetting process.
“To suspend the immigration in the refugee program until the three departments of jurisdiction can identify a vetting system that works. As far as our refugees go, I’m a humanitarian, I understand it. But I’ve also seen it, and you should realize that women and children can be a threat if they are under the influence of evil.”
A common theme over the debate was leadership, and who could best represent Montana values as the state’s lone U.S. House member.
Juneau attacked Zinke for campaign fundraising from out-of-state donors, trying to paint him as detached from voters in Montana. She alleged that out-of-state interests are banking his reelection campaign.
“That’s a stark difference in this campaign, where I am getting the majority of my donations to support this Montana-made campaign from actual Montanans.”
Zinke countered by calling Juneau a liar and saying his supporters represent what Montanans want to see in an elected leader.
“I have thousands of donors, low-dollar donors, that believe in the same thing we do: a strong America, a strong defense, making sure we honor the Constitution. Those are the values and those are the people that support me.”
Zinke has raised about $3.5 million since the beginning of 2015 in his bid to retain his seat.
The latest campaign finance reports from the end June show that Zinke has already spent over $2.5 million in the race.
About 83 percent of the incumbent’s donations came from individual contributors. Just over 13 percent came from political action committees.
Challenger Juneau has raised just over 1 million dollars, and spent just over $300,000 in her campaign so far.
About 82 percent of Juneau’s contributions came from individual donors. Nearly 16 percent came from Political Action Committees.
Juneau used her closing remarks to jab at her opponent on the issue of public lands.
“There is a stark contrast in this race. You have someone in me, in my candidacy, who will never vote to transfer or sell off our public lands. I’m proud of the record on the State Land Board and making sure that we are doing the right thing and managing, and making sure that there are jobs and that we are doing the right resource development. I’m proud of that record. In Congressman Zinke you have somebody who has not done the job for Montana.”
Zinke closed the evening by calling Juneau’s claims disingenuous and again making an appeal to voters as the proven leader with Montana values.
"I tell you my office and my vote is not mine, it's yours, for a reason, because I represent all of us. It's an honor and a privilege. Check your facts. The reason is this: it's that leadership is standing. And we may agree or disagree, but I pledge this, I will always listen. And I will also do what is in the best interest of our country and Montana.”
The debate ended much like it began, with cheers and chants -- supporters trying to drown out the voice of their rivals in political philosophy by screaming even louder.
Listen to the full U.S. House candidate debate from Billings here.