Only Republican Ryan Zinke gave a dominating performance at last Saturday’s congressional debate, giving more substantive answers than his opponent, Democrat John Lewis.
Tall and commanding, Zinke was able to project both warmth and authority, skills possibly honed in command positions in combat posts in Iraq and Europe.
Zinke is the Republican candidate running for the congressional seat vacated by Steve Daines, the Republican who now stands against incumbent Democrat John Walsh for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Max Baucus.
Baucus was named U.S. ambassador to China earlier this year.
The Senate candidates went first, and Walsh seemed to put in a better performance than Daines, but perhaps not by a margin that would move the undecided into Walsh’s camp.
Daines stands ahead of Walsh in fundraising and in the polls, and he appeared more set on not giving his opponent ammunition than on dominating the debate.
He stayed on message, proclaiming, “I’m standing for more jobs and less government.” Daines did not, however, say how he would create those jobs, and no one challenged the assertion that he could.
One of the livelier moments came when the topic of campaign finance and the Citizens United case came up during the debate between Senate candidates.
Commenting on the concept of corporate personhood, Sen. Walsh noted, “I didn’t see any corporations standing in line with us waiting to board planes headed for Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Congressman Daines agreed that there was too much money in politics, but efforts to rein in spending had to be balanced with rights of individuals to exercise free speech, he said.
Libertarian candidate Roger Roots derided both Walsh and Daines for seeking to curb campaign spending, which Roots called “political speech.”
When campaign finance came up during the debate between House candidates, Zinke argued that the dollar amount was less important than transparency. He called for an end to anonymous donations.
“If you give to somebody, “You need to stand behind it. It isn’t important the money, it’s the name behind it,” Zinke said. He called the lack of transparency in campaign finance “a corruptive force.”
When it was Lewis’ turn to address the topic, he said, “There is too much money in politics, period.” He argued that most Montanans agreed with him, and he said that the problem had been made much worse by the Citizens United decision.
“We need less money in politics. This is the source of the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. This is why people are not working together, doing what they are sent there to do, which is to solve tough issues, make tough decisions. Instead it’s about money and raising money,” Lewis said.
Kalispell newsman Frank Miele asked the congressional candidates, “Can Congress force the president to enforce existing laws and prevent the president from legislating with his pen?”
Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows argued that closer adherence to the Constitution would keep the president and Congress from straying into one another’s territory.
Candidate Lewis argued that congressional inaction caused the president to legislate by executive order. He said that the president’s actions were a “direct result of Congress’ inability to do its job.”
Mr. Zinke disagreed. He said, “I don’t think that there is any justification for the abuse of power and the dismantling of American power both domestically and abroad.”
Zinke said that America is in danger of losing trust in its government, and that he wanted to stop “executive overreach.” He noted that the U.S. spies on its own citizens, and he said that the American people had allowed the government’s abuse of power, and he added that he believed that they could end it.
With the exception of the Libertarian candidates, the debaters each attempted to project an aura of moderation, and often noted that they agreed with parts of their opponents’ arguments.
Mr. Roots, on the other hand, often mocked his opponents, seeking to use humor to make his argument. At one point he asserted, tongue in cheek, that if the government would just get out of health care, even a man who came out from under a bridge bleeding from “2,000 cuts” could be healed quickly for merely $29.99.
The debate can be watched in its entirety at kufm.org/post/watch-us-senate-and-house-debates.
The debates were held in the library auditorium at Montana Tech in Butte on Flag Day.
The debates were sponsored by the Montana Newspaper Association and Montana PBS.
The moderator was Tom Eggensperger. Questions for the senate debate came from a media panel made up of Mike Dennison of the Lee Enterprises state bureau; Frank Miele, managing editor of the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake; and Anna Rau of Montana PBS.
For the House debate, Mr. Dennison was replaced by his Lee colleague Chuck Johnson.