In a Thursday night debate between the four men running in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Montana, their party's president played a role.
When asked if any of the headlines related to President Donald Trump — from an alleged affair with a porn star to ethics inquiries into members of his Cabinet and an investigation by a special council into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election that has entangled people close to the president— candidates mostly pivoted without substantially naming any frustrations they've had with Trump's actions.
The candidates are Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, former Billings judge Russ Fagg, state legislator Al Olszewski and state Auditor Matt Rosendale.
The men are hoping to go up against Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is seeking his third term this fall in what's expected to be an intensely fought race. Already money and advertising have flown into Montana, with the primary June 5 and the general election Nov. 6. Democrats nationally are trying to win back a majority in Congress while Republicans see seats like Tester's, in a state Trump won by 20 points in 2016, as vulnerable.
Fagg on Thursday, as he has in the past, came out strongly against Trump's tariffs on aluminum and steel, saying they could hurt Montana. But when asked about the president's time in office, Fagg said he's been pleased with the tax bill passed at the end of last year and with Neil Gorsuch's appointment to the Supreme Court.
Fagg said he will stand up for Montana when he disagrees with Trump, such as over the tariffs, but will "go back to supporting the president generally."
Downing didn't say whether anything Trump has done over the last year and a half can be seen as a liability, adding that he focuses more on Trump's background as a businessman and what Downing said is an emphasis on national security.
"What I see is a president right now who is putting America first, is allowing business to thrive," Downing said.
Rosendale also didn't say whether anything Trump has done while in office concerns him.
"What you said is allegations and that's what we continue to hear, allegations," Rosendale said.
Olszewski said that Trump is "getting stuff done," but also said there hasn't been a president in his lifetime who has been his "moral compass."
While much of the forum touched on issues that the candidates have discussed at previous appearances together around the state, they were asked by moderators Beth Saboe, of Montana Public Broadcasting Service, and Mike Dennison, of Montana Television Network, about their thoughts on Trump's nominee to run the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson withdrew Thursday after allegations of unethical behavior were made public by the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
The top Democrat on that committee is Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who took fire from Trump on Thursday for making public the claims from more than 20 current and past coworkers of Jackson's. The chairman of the committee, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, from Georgia, defended Tester's decision Thursday.
Downing, Fagg, Olszewski and Rosendale all used the opportunity to attack Tester, saying Jackson deserved to have a nomination hearing, and for the allegations to be discussed there and not beforehand in the media and public.
The candidates also were asked about their views on abortion, a topic that hasn't seen much discussion in their previous public appearances together.
Fagg said that he is "unabashedly pro-life" and that "one tragedy does not beget another tragedy."
He said that he would favor overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that allowed access to abortion, but also said there should be exceptions if the life of the mother is at risk.
Downing said he was the result of a teenage pregnancy and that no one should be able to take away another's ability to exist.
Rosendale said he values all life and that "once we decide (about) one life not being around, that puts us on a slippery slope." Rosendale also opposes the death penalty.
Olszewski said abortion should be illegal unless the life of the woman is at risk.
Downing and Rosendale, the two candidates who weren't born in Montana, were pressed by moderators over issues that have come up in the campaign relating to their past residency in other states.
Downing, who has a court date in Bozeman two weeks before the primary on charges he bought in-state hunting licenses when he was not a full-time Montana resident, was asked by Saboe if the situation would be difficult to overcome in a general election.
Downing said he doesn’t see it as a problem and countered that he thinks it’s less about where someone was born than his current values.
“Really what makes you Montanan is what you care about, the people that think the same, the communities you want to support, and I think we’ll get past that,” Downing said.
Downing was also asked by Saboe why he is a registered agent of a vineyard in California, with Saboe saying you must be a resident of that state to be a registered agent. Downing said he has a paralegal that handles his businesses and that the practice is “totally normal.”
Rosendale, who moved to Montana from Maryland in 2002, said he will also “probably take a couple hits on not being born here” and quipped “there was only one person on this earth able to select where he was born and that was 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.”
Earlier this week, Lee Newspapers ran a story that Rosendale signed, under penalty of perjury, a real estate sale form that was, according to his title company, later marked to indicate he was a Maryland resident. The title company acknowledged the mistake.
Rosendale said he sold the property after his brother died and mother moved from adjacent property and that the title company "screwed up the documents, they altered the documents without my consent."
Media were not initially allowed into the forum, which was hosted by the Greater Montana Foundation. The event was by invitation only, but Fagg added reporters at the event to his guest list.