The candidates for U.S. Senate reminded voters in a debate Saturday they are at the opposite end of just about every issue and clashed over who was telling the truth in the last scheduled debate before the Nov. 6 election.
Montana’s senior U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, is running for a third term against Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale. It’s one of the most hard-fought races in the country, with more than $14 million being spent by out-of-state groups to influence the outcome.
That’s in addition to the $14 million raised by Tester’s campaign, which far outpaces the $2 million Rosendale has brought in.
And it’s not just money. President Donald Trump is making an unprecedented third visit to Montana Thursday to stump for Rosendale in a campaign-style rally at the Missoula airport. Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. have also made multiple visits to the state.
One of the issues where Tester and Rosendale are perhaps the furthest apart is health insurance.
In the debate, held in Bozeman and hosted by Montana Television Network and Yellowstone Public Radio, panelist Jackie Yamanaka asked Rosendale if he’d be willing to sign his family up for coverage under short-term insurance. The low-cost plans are inexpensive because they don't guarantee essential benefits required under the Affordable Care Act, including coverage for pre-existing conditions.
In his role as state auditor, Rosendale oversees the insurance industry in the state and has advocated for the plans, which the Trump administration has supported.
Rosendale did not answer if he’d cover his family on the plans, but said they are a necessary part of what he wants to see in the health insurance market: more options.
Tester earlier this week took to the Senate floor to decry the plans, which he labeled "junk."
Since he was elected auditor in 2016, Rosendale said he has been working on an approach to cover pre-existing and chronic conditions, but did not say specifically what that plan was.
“(We need) options for everyone so they can accommodate their budgets, their specific health care needs and their personal choices, so short-term plans are a part of that,” Rosendale said. “... We need to have a full range of options of health care plans for everyone to make a decision for what is best for them.”
Tester said no reasonable person would want coverage on the “junk plans.”
“That’s why Matt would not answer the question,” Tester said.
When he lost three fingers in a meat grinder accident as a child, Tester said his parents had health insurance coverage similar to a short-term plan and it came back to haunt them.
“We bought this insurance to have when we needed it. And when we needed it, it wasn’t there,” Tester said.
Rosendale responded that Tester’s views on insurance have been skewed by his time in Washington, D.C.
“This is what happens when you spend too much of your time in the federal government,” Rosendale said. “He’s been there 12 years and he thinks he can determine what is best for you and what is best for your families.”
In the debate, Rosendale emphasized a campaign message he’s returned to over and over — that Tester’s two terms in the Senate show he’s more connected now to Washington, D.C., than his home state of Montana.
“Jon has been too wrong for too long,” Rosendale said, telling the audience Tester’s purchase of a home in D.C. shows he’s no longer connected to Montana. “It’s the perfect reason why we should have term limits in place.”
Tester jabbed back that Rosendale’s views and policies are dangerous for Montana, the state where Tester's grandparents homesteaded the farm he still runs. He said Rosendale, who is originally from Maryland, is “not in it for Montana, he’s in it for himself.”
“You can see the difference here on stage. Folks in Montana have a choice this election. They can vote for somebody who is born here, lived here, educated here,” Tester said.
Tester and Rosendale also clashed over a recent campaign ad Tester is running, a 30-second spot with the former homeowners' association president of Eagles Crossing, a subdivision Rosendale developed in Great Falls. Rosendale was sued four times over homes with structural problems; there was one case that reached a settlement and two were dismissed.
Since the ad started airing, a couple of homeowners told the Great Falls Tribune they worried the ad could lower their property values.
Rosendale said Tester’s campaign got “someone to tell lies about a project and then the people who actually live there called up and said, 'Take it down, it’s a bunch of false information and some more Washington Democrat smears,’” Rosendale said.
While Rosendale's campaign argues the ad gives false impressions about Rosendale's role in the subdivision, Tester's campaign and the man featured in the commercial stand by it.
In the debate, Tester said he’s a strong advocate of getting rid of dark money in politics, which has backed several of the ads this year on television, radio and social media.
“That’s my record, that’s why he can’t run positive ads,” Tester said. “That’s why he has to run negative ads.”
Rosendale, in response to a question about what federal agencies or programs he would eliminate, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Department of Education.
Rosendale continued that he believes states have more stringent criteria to manage and protect clean water and air and he does not want federal agencies creating further burdens.
Libertarian candidate Rick Breckenridge, a land surveyor from Proctor, also participated in the debate. He told voters he wants to abolish the EPA and Education Department, plus the Department of Health and Human Services, and wants to see less government in the lives of Montanans. He encouraged voters to be have the "strength" to vote Libertarian.