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GOP Senate hopefuls mix it up, barely, in first debate

Posted at 9:31 AM, Mar 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-23 11:31:48-04

BOZEMAN – In their first public debate, Montana’s four Republican U.S. Senate hopefuls strove to define why they’re the one to defeat Democratic incumbent Jon Tester – but spent most of Thursday night agreeing with each other.

Still, the 90-minute debate on the Montana State University campus had its moments, as the candidates tried, gently, to draw contrasts among themselves.  

Russ Fagg, a former state district judge from Billings, told the crowd that his Montana roots make him the best choice, because Tester won’t be able to denigrate him as a recent transplant.

“The Democrats are going to unmercifully beat up two of my opponents because they moved here nine years ago and 15 years ago,” he said, referring to Big Sky businessman Troy Downing and state Auditor Matt Rosendale. “It may not be fair. But it’s the truth. If you put me on that ticket, that takes that argument away from Senator Tester.”

Downing, originally from California, noted his profile as a businessman and a non-traditional newcomer to politics – just like President Trump.

“I am the only candidate on the state who isn’t a professional politician,” he said. “And I will not join those who would work against our president to stop his America-first agenda.”

Downing also often mentioned that he’s the only combat veteran among the candidates, having served in Afghanistan.  

Rosendale, who’s from Maryland but has lived on a ranch near Glendive for more than a decade, pointed to his experience in business, the Legislature and as state insurance commissioner.

He said his proven record as a conservative makes him the best person to challenge Tester, and that he’ll be a strong voice for pushing free-market solutions to the nation’s problems.

“Expansion of the economy will not take place because of government projects or programs,” he said. “Expansion of the economy will take place when the government gets out of our way. That is clearly demonstrated many times over.”

State Sen. Al Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon from Kalispell, said he’s the best choice because he combines the best qualities of the other candidates: He served as a surgeon in the Air Force, he’s a Montana native, he’s a “battle-tested state legislator,” and he said he can appeal to a wide swath of voters.

“I’m a story-teller,” he said. “I’m able to engage the people of Montana. And I can ask them to join in our story, too – and not just the Republicans, but those in the middle.”

The Montana State University College Republicans sponsored the debate, which was attended by about 150 people in the Strand Union Building.

Republican primary voters will choose their nominee in the June 5 election, to challenge Tester, who’s running for re-election to a third term. A Green Party nominee and Libertarian Rick Breckenridge also will be on the ballot this fall.

Tester is seen as a potentially vulnerable Democrat in a state that President Trump won by 20 percentage points in 2016 – but the two-term Democrat has rolled up a $6 million bank account while Republicans battle over their nominee.

The format of the debate didn’t allow for much give-and-take among the candidates, as they fielded specific, separate questions with no chance for follow-up or rebuttal.

For the most part, they agreed on policies like cracking down on immigration, repealing “Obamacare,” cutting taxes and allowing more local input on federal land management.

In addition to repealing Obamacare, Downing said it’s time for America to take a hard look at health-care costs, which are the real problem with the health-care system.

“Why are we not looking at the problems of hospital billings practices?” he asked. “Hospitals just make up numbers, having nothing to do with the value of goods or services. … Why are we not looking more closely at the problem with the pharmaceutical industry?”

And Olszewski said while he supports the tax-cut bill passed by Republicans last December, it needs to be paired with cuts in spending – including reforms of expensive “entitlement programs.”

“If we’re going to have tax cuts, we’re going to have to have entitlement reform and we’re going to have to find a way to decrease our spending,” he said. “You have to have a one-two punch in this area. … Without decreasing what we spend in entitlements, we will have a long-term problem.”