The three candidates in the Republican primary race for governor in Montana squared off at their first full debate Thursday night.
Each candidate tried to distinguish himself as the best Montanan to advocate for other Montanans.
About 400 people showed up to hear U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte, State Attorney General Tim Fox and State Senator Al Olszewski at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center Thursday, hosted by the Yellowstone County Republicans.
While candidates remained relatively non-combative, Senator Olszewski of Kalispell fit in an early jab at Gianforte.
“I will not be bullied, bought or body slammed out of this race. Montana deserves a man who’s a fighter and I’m the man,” Olszewski said.
Olszewski’s opening statement remark referenced Gianforte’s physical assault on a reporter in 2017.
In his opening statement, Gianforte came back with a line coined by California Republican Party Chairman Gaylord Parkinson in the 1960s often attributed to Ronald Reagan.
“Now, when I started this race, I made a personal commitment that I would abide by Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment. He was very clear. He said, 'Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican.' That’s a personal commitment that I made to my friends Al and Tim and it’s a personal commitment I make to you,” Gianforte said.
He said the candidates need to be unified to bring an end to the Democratic party’s stint in the Governor’s office. Montana’s last Republican governor was Judy Martz, who held the seat for a single term between 2001 and 2005.
Attorney General Tim Fox also emphasized the importance of a Republican winning the governor’s seat in his opening statement.
“We need to find the principled person, the principled conservative and someone with character, integrity, to get these things done. I have been that person for you as attorney general. I have stood up to federal overreach, I have protected the unborn and I have protected your second amendment rights,” Fox said.
He also referenced his Montana origins. He was born in Hardin and grew up in the state.
Each candidate highlighted his connections in Montana, whether he's a born and bred Montanan like Fox or Olszewski or whether he chose Montana as his home state like Gianforte, originally from California.
All three candidates praised President Donald Trump’s resource extraction, environmental and economic policies.
Gianforte said he could use his relationship with Trump and other D.C. connections to benefit Montana. He also touted his business experience and how he could use that to improve the state economy.
“If we just hold the line on spending, we can use the surplus that will result to lower property taxes and income taxes,” Gianforte said.
He did not explicitly state how he would avoid raising state spending. While each candidate made promises about how they'd act as the state's top executive, they focused on big picture approaches instead of specifics. Gianforte said the state should increase accountability for state agencies and the school system and reform the state’s financial structure so that Montana could direct those funds to where it matters, like to raising teacher salaries.
He also voiced support for simplifying environmental regulations, which he called convoluted and limiting on potential resource extraction.
Olszewski also referenced extraction as an industry the state should take more advantage of.
“This is the treasure state, not the tourist state and we need to work and go maximum with making sure we take our natural resources, the two richest copper deposits in the world and bring high paying jobs by extracting those riches,” Olszewski said.
Olszewski also suggested giving people who don’t qualify for Medicaid 30 days to switch out from coverage and helping them out from the plan and putting a bounty out for drug traffickers.
Olszewski’s two rivals expressed support of a bill he sponsored, which Governor Steve Bullock vetoed in 2019. The language in the Montana Born-Alive Infant Protection Act requires that doctors should attempt to save the life of a fetus following an abortion.
Fox focused on the programs he pushed through as attorney general, like a human trafficking task force and a statewide initiative to fight substance abuse. He also brought up his experience making economic change and said as attorney general he’s had experience cutting costs.
"But the real way we can cut taxes is by jump starting our economy and making sure we have an economy that creates jobs. Then frankly, the revenues aren’t much of a problem,” Fox said.
After an hour and a half, the debate wrapped up.
In the lobby, candidates’ posters covered the walls and people in red manned tables with merchandise and hats that said things like “Trumptana.”
Cherie Caverly said she had fun and liked that the candidates stayed on-topic.
“They all answered very good in the same way saying the same thing which was really kinda nice and the thing is they all have very good experience being in the government, and that’s also a nice thing, and it’ll make it hard for people to decide I think,” Caverly said.
She says she’s voting for Olszewski, who strikes her as genuine and real, but she’s glad all candidates touched on pro-life issues and the problem of missing and murdered indiginous people.
Gayle Lammers, who’s from the same community Fox was born in, Hardin, also said he was glad the candidates addressed the issue of missing and murdered indiginous people.
“They all did very good. If I had to choose a winner, I would say Tim Fox took it. I am a little biased because I’m from Hardin, but I think he had the most confidence and did the best job, you know?" Lammers said.
This was the first time all three Republican candidates met in debate.
The Democratic primary race includes three contenders: Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney, business woman Whitney Williams and state House Minority Leader Casey Schriener.
The primary election is on June 2.