Guns, the GOP tax cut and the federal budget deficit were among the topics of discussion between the 3 candidates for the Montana’s lone U.S. House seat. This was their first debate in advance of the November general election.
For Democrat Kathleen Williams this debate was the opportunity to set the record straight on her record. She said Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte has several television ads that she said are false, including one on her position on guns.
“I am a gun owner. I am a hunter. I support the 2nd amendment,” Williams said and added children deserve to be safe.
“I am not afraid. I am not cowed by special interests,” she said, an apparent reference to the NRA. “And I’m not afraid to have a discussion, a public discussion, on how to keep kids safe in school. And I am, I am willing to stand up to that.”
She charged Gianforte and Congress have done nothing about the issue of school safety.
To which Gianforte said he’s for school safety and that Congress is working on the issue with what’s called the STOP Act that includes training for school resource officers.
The former Bozeman high-tech businessman said on the issue of guns, he’s the one with the “A” rating from the NRA while Williams was rated “F.”
“We cannot restrict law abiding citizens to prevent criminal acts,” he said.
Libertarian Elinor Swanson, in her rebuttal said “being a hunter does not mean that you support gun rights.”
Swanson said Williams voted against constitutional carry and against letting college students decide when and where to be armed on campus.
“And to me that is absolutely against the second amendment,” said Swanson. “There is a human right to self-defense and defense of others and we need to respect that.”
Williams is a former state legislator from in Bozeman, the home of Montana State University. She acknowledged she did vote against allowing armed students on Montana’s campuses.
“When I was in the Legislature, I got calls from panicked parents saying they never would have sent their kids here to college if there was going to be no opportunity for colleges to say how guns should be stored,” she said. “It’s very reasonable.”
As for not being endorsed by the NRA or the Montana Shooting Sports Association, Williams said she has the support of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance.
The three also differed on the issue of the Republican’s tax cut and its impact on the federal deficit.
Williams calls the tax cut a giveaway to the wealthy.
“Let me say I support tax cuts. It’s wonderful to have more dollars in the pockets of working families and agricultural and small businesses,” she said. “But this wasn’t a tax cut that benefited small income earners. Again it gave 85% of the results to the top 1%.”
She said she has experience in the Montana Legislature lowering taxes and passing responsible fiscal policy. Williams was a member on the House Taxation Committee.
Gianforte defended his vote for President Trump’ tax cut last December. He said it’s helping Montanans and he points out a single mom he met as just one example.
“Her paycheck here in Helena went up $400 dollars. That’s allowed her to get a more reliable car and make the American dream brighter for her,” said Gianforte. “I’m proud of what we’ve done there. And we didn’t have a single Democrat vote in the House or the Senate that made wages larger for Montanans.”
The Libertarian candidate has said reducing the federal deficit her top campaign priority. Swanson was critical of both opponents - Williams for voting for past tax increase proposals and Gianforte for votes to increase the debt.
“Mr. Gianforte voted to increase federal spending. He voted increase the debt cap without spending reform. He voted for a $900 million East coast rail linel $1.1 billion on Amtrak,” said Swanson. “He voted for FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) a degradation of our 4th Amendment rights and it needs to be talked about.”
The three candidates faced off in Saturday’s debate that was broadcast “live” statewide on the Montana Television Network and Yellowstone Public Radio.
MTN Chief Political Analyst David Parker of MSU said candidate debates are still relevant, even in this era of social media.
“This is an opportunity for the candidates to have a discussion that is driven by the interests of Montanans because the questions are developed by Montana journalists. So that I think is really great because we’re setting the agenda,” said Parker.
He said it’s in contrast to the candidates setting the agenda through their television ads or other paid media.
Social media still plays a role said Parker.
For example, take those who proclaim they are politically independent and say they haven’t yet made up their minds. On one hand, Parker said intendents “also tend to be a little bit more passive, a little bit less engaged in politics and that’s the trick.”
“So at one level, a person who really wants to put the time in and effort and sit down and watch it (the debate) it could change their mind,” he said. “But the other thing I think is if a friend shares it today and get it into somebody’s feed, they know the person is undecided that’s where I think you can have a consequential effect.”
Parker’s analysis of Saturday’s U.S. House debate was that all 3 of the candidates appeared competent and didn’t appear to make any mistakes.
“I think Greg Gianforte, the thing that you have to understand about him, is he won a special election. He doesn’t have the true power of an incumbent. He’s still in that growth phase,” said Parker. “This was a really strong and solid performance.”
“The reason I say that is he came off as polished, he was relaxed and he was relatable. That is something he has struggled with in the past and certainly in the first gubernatorial debate – a little less than in the special (election) – but certainly tonight he was totally on his game and he did a really good job,” said Parker.
Parker has this advice for the candidates as they head into their second and last debate before the election:
“I think the lesson for Greg Gianforte is to keep doing what he did tonight,” said Parker.
“The lesson for Kathleen Williams, I think, who presented competence, intelligent policy responses what I think she needs to do is to perhaps go a little bit more aggressively against Greg Gianforte,” he said. “She did that here and there but I actually would have gone a little bit further and kept his feet to the fire.”
Parker said the candidates need to remember that voters think of politics in terms of stories. He said a lot of Williams answers at Saturday’s MTN/YPR debate were about policy in the abstract.
Parker said Williams should take a page out of Gianforte’s playbook and tell the stories of the people she’s met criss-crossing Montana on the campaign trail.
“And say look, ‘this struggling woman who might have $200 more in her paycheck is paying more for childcare or paying more for gas.’ And I think doing that will help sell her story a little bit more convincingly to voters,” said Parker.
Gianforte and Williams are set to face off next Saturday – October 6, 2018 – in a debate sponsored by Montana PBS. Swanson was not invited to participate.
MTN and YPR are sponsors of a U.S. Senate debate next Saturday – October 6, 2018 – from Great Falls.