U.S. Senate candidates Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Steve Bullock squared off in a debate for the first time over the weekend. The debate focused on responses to the novel coronavirus.
The two long-standing Montana figures each said Congress and the federal government should work across the political aisle during this time. But Daines and Bullock also sent a salvo of political attacks at each other in an attempt to sway voters to their side in one of this year's most closely watched elections in Montana and the country.
The debate sponsored by the Montana Broadcasters Association and Greater Montana Foundation was held over a video conference due to concerns of COVID-19.
Senate incumbent Republican Steve Daines, a loyal supporter of President Donald Trump, was asked to rate the federal government’s response to the pandemic.
As of August 5, the U.S. was among the ten counties in the world reporting the highest deaths per capita tied to the disease, according to John Hopkins University.
“President Trump has led boldly,” Daines said.
Daines said he is grateful for Trump’s leadership, particularly in the administration’s push for a quick development of a vaccine and drugs to treat the COVID-19 illness.
Daines said he’s worked in Congress to support small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program.
“This is an issue that should not be politicized. This is coming together. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue, ” Daines said.
Republicans, including Daines, have criticized Gov. Steve Bullock for what they say is the lagging pace in which the state is spending the $1.25 billion it received from the federal Coronarius Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
“I’m not sure if he thinks there an advantage to hoarding it, because he needs to get it out quickly because Montanans are hurting, ” Daines said.
Sitting Montana Governor Steve Bullock says his office has allocated $800 million of the CARES Act funding that’s available for expenses this year. He says Montana can’t plan for what other help may or may not come out of Washington D.C.
“[Daines] fails to understand that at the end of the day we have five more months. This pandemic is not going away,” Bullock said. “And we want to make sure to use that money wisely.”
Bullock said there’s been a lack of support and leadership at the federal level and the federal government has politicized it’s response to the pandemic.
“The same time I was asking Montanans to stay at home and shelter in place so we could bend that curve, the president was saying it’d all be open by Easter, on April 15,” Bullock said. “The lack of a national testing strategy.”
The two-term governor said Montana’s response during the pandemic has helped keep case numbers, deaths and hospitalizations relatively lower in the state.
According to analysis from NPR, Montana has reported seven deaths due to the virus per 100,000 people. In comparison, Idaho, South Dakota and North Dakota are around double that figure.
“The way that I'll work in Washington is the same that I’ve worked in Montana, by bringing people together,” Bullock said. “It’s so much more important than the political food fights of the day to get stuff done. And that’s why I want to do this job.
Bullock previously said he didn’t want the job. But after dropping his bid for president early this year, he decided to run for the Senate. Bullock’s entrance into the race cast the contest into the national spotlight.
Bullock held Montana’s office of attorney general for a term before seeking, and winning, the governor’s seat. Bullock won reelection to the executive seat in 2016.
Daines previously represented Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives and is seeking a second term in the U.S. Senate.
The outcome in the Daines-Bullock race could play a role in deciding which political party controls the U.S. Senate.
Daines says voters should consider his work with president Trump to pass tax cuts, new trade deals and, recently, the Great American Outdoors Act.
“This election is the most consequal in our lifetime. It determines who controls the United States Senate and it will determine the future of the United States Supreme Court,” Daines said.
Daines often attacked Bullock through criticism of national Democratic party leaders in Congress.
Bullock countered that this race is between him and Daines, and those not out-of-state political figures.
“I’m running for the Senate because Washington isn’t working for Montana,” Bullock said. “It’s working for party leaders and for special interests.”
The general election is on November 3. Counties can now opt-in to run the election through mail ballots, although in-person voting will still be available.