The candidates in the race for Montana’s U.S. House seat met this weekend for the first of two debates before election day.
It was a chance for the Libertarian and Democratic challengers to try and chip away at incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte, who had the most to lose going into the candidates’ in-person faceoff.
On a closed TV set at Montana Television Network in Helena, Gianforte along with challengers Democrat Kathleen Williams, and Libertarian Elinor Swanson took turns answering questions from MTN and Yellowstone Public Radio journalists.
Gianforte delivered a message highlighting a close relationship with President Trump, several times mentioning conversations with he’s had with the president while on Air Force One, or within the Oval Office. He gave Trump and the Republican Congress credit for a strong economy spurred, in part, by the tax cuts passed in 2017.
“Having a seat at the table with President Trump is delivering results for Montana," Gianforte said. "Ultimately though, this election is about competing ideas. Do you want someone who is going to work with President Trump and deliver results? Or do you want someone who is going to join the resistance and stand with Nancy Pelosi?”
“Congressman Gianforte knows that in July I said that I would not be voting for Nancy Pelosi, that is public," Williams said. "We need honesty, integrity and stateswomanship in congress, not more lies.”
Williams, a Democrat, says she disapproves of President Trump’s tone, but in Saturday’s debate said she won’t oppose him 100 percent of the time.
“I am looking forward to working with the president on any common interests we can find," Williams said. "I appreciate his interest in trying to bring corporations home from overseas. I’d love to help him with that.”
Gianforte used his time in the debate to reinforce his support for a strong immigration policy, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," and recounting his travels around Montana listening to constituents.
Gianforte also pushed back against criticism for not holding public, in-person town halls. The Republican congressman does hold telephone and online gatherings with constituents.
“I would argue that I’ve probably been more accessible than anyone who’s filed this seat before," Gianforte said, "and I will continue to operate in that manner.”
Gianforte was asked how far his support for President Trump goes. Trump’s hard line trade policy tactics have launched the country into international disputes and created an uncertain future for state’s agriculture industry.
“I’ve been very clear on this. I will always stand with Montana," Gianforte said. "I’ve had a chance to talk with the president twice face-to-face on this. And my encouragement to him was to bring these trade negotiations to a close. I’ve said all along I don’t support broad based tariffs.”
Gianforte also said some current trade deals the United States has with other counties are unfair.
Kathleen Williams used much of her time throughout the hour long debate attempting to poke holes in Gianforte’s record.
She criticized him for assaulting of a reporter one the eve of his win in Montana’s special U-S House election last year. She says Montana needs leadership with more integrity.
“Montana deserves someone who will keep their promises in Congress," Williams said. "I promise that I will work to fix healthcare. That I will foster opportunity for all Montanans, not just for special interests. That i’ll protect our environment and our outdoor heritage. That I’ll bring humility and civility, and stateswomanship, in my case, to a broken Congress. And that we’ll rebuild our place in the world. Gianforte has broken promises."
Gianforte say he regrets the assault, and has taken responsibility for it.
In the Democratic party primary Williams, more so than her opponents, called for more gun regulations following the most recent school shootings.
During the debte she was asked to explain what her call for regulations on AR-15s would look like and how it would impact Montanas.
“Children deserve to feel safe in school," Williams said, "and parents deserve to know that their children are going to come safe from school. I am not cowed by special interests. And I am not afraid to have a discussion about how to keep kids safe in school.”
Saturday night’s debate will likely be Libertarian Elinor Swanson biggest exposure to voters. Swanson was not invited to the Montana PBS debate on Saturday because her polling numbers don’t meet the network’s threshold. Swanson calls PBS’s standards unfair.
During the debate, she jabbed at both Williams and Gianforte. She said she is the only candidate independent from the influences of the major political parties and she’d work to reduce the federal deficit.
“I am the only candidate who will uphold and respect the whole constitution, including the bill of rights," Swanson said. "I will respect the constitutionally limited role of the federal government.”
The next U.S. House debate between Democrat Kathleen Williams and Republican Greg Gianforte will be hosted by MontanaPBS this coming Saturday.