The Lewis and Clark County Republicans U.S. Senate candidate forum Saturday night in Helena was a reflection of how President Donald Trump has set the tone within the Republican Party.
Candidates both praised Trump and assailed Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who released what Trump called "false" allegations that scuttled his nomination of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The four GOP Senate candidates are Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, former Billings judge Russ Fagg, Whitefish legislator and surgeon Al Olszewski and former legislator and current state auditor Matt Rosendale. They addressed questions on whether they believe that any part of the Republican Party platform was skewing the wrong way, the federal government’s role in addressing gun violence, social safety net programs, and how elected officials should interact with their constituents.
The forum was moderated by Independent Record Editor Jesse Chaney, who said the newspaper came up with the questions for the hour-long event.
Olszewski opened by saying one of the most important things that needed to be done in Congress was to remove Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“My prescription for our country and state is to take back a healthy dose of Montana values to Washington, D.C,” Olszewski said.
Downing spent much of his opening statement hitting at Sen. Tester and pointing to his own military experience, along with his time in business.
“People keep saying to me, ‘You don’t need a job, you don’t need a career.’ I’m tired of hearing people thinking that politics is a career … we need statesmen,” Downing said.
Fagg went directly to recent headlines to assail Tester.
“He has lost touch with Montana,” Fagg said, and motioned to the “last debacle with Ronny Jackson."
Fagg was also the only one to take shots at one of his fellow Republican candidates, saying Rosendale should not try to leave his current position on the Montana Land Board because Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock could appoint another Democrat to fill the vacancy.
Rosendale avoided Fagg’s attacks and played up his public service resume, focusing on the bigger picture during the forum.
“There are two common threads tonight: defeating Jon Tester, reducing the size and scope of government. I can do both of those things,” Rosendale said.
All of the candidates reinforced their qualifications as both Montanans and Republicans. Downing, Fagg and Olszewski emphasized their commitment to the Republican platform, while Rosendale said he would be beholden to the U.S. Constitution first.
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Fagg displayed displeasure with the recent omnibus bill that passed in Congress, calling it a “very irresponsible bill … that will blow up the budget in significant ways.”
On the issue of gun rights, all of the candidates said more laws and regulations were a bad idea.
Fagg and Rosendale keyed in on their belief that mental illness was the central problem with gun violence. Downing took it one step further and said, “We are using chemistry to treat our problems,” pointing to side-effects in anti-depressants and what he believes is a breakdown in the community bonds that would help stop gun violence. Olszewski focused on enforcing existing laws and utilizing law enforcement data better to provide higher-quality policing to communities.
Social safety nets met similar responses from each candidate, with key points being protecting Social Security while getting those utilizing social services back to work. Each candidate reiterated that social programs were needed to serve the most vulnerable in society, but that those were of a smaller number than the size of the programs indicated.
“It needs to be a social safety trampoline,” Olszewski said. “It needs to throw them back up and empower them to become solid citizens.”
Fagg also went after Rosendale for Rosendale's endorsement from former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.
“I noticed my friend Matt didn’t mention his endorsement by Steve Bannon,” Fagg said. “Matt, what’s your position on Steve’s endorsement?”
Rosendale said he had received endorsements from all over the nation.
In a Who’s Who of Montana Republicans, Attorney General Tim Fox opened Saturday night's Lincoln Reagan Dinner, which ended with the candidate forum. U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte was tapped as the keynote speaker.
Republican victory was the battle cry of the Republicans who are currently serving.
Gianforte opened by mentioning that Lewis and Clark County Republican Chairman Joe Dooling sent off a small group of young protesters at the event by telling them he would call their parents.
Gianforte also mentioned U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a bugaboo to Republicans, and the need for Republican victories in the House and Senate to continue changing Republican fortunes in Washington, D.C.
Shots at Tester made up a large part of his opening statements as well.
“My marching orders are really clear,” Gianforte said. “The people of Montana sent me here to Washington to drain the swamp.”
Montana’s other U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, sent in a video message that played up deregulation, conservative judges being placed on the bench and cutting taxes, and he pointed to economic indicators as signs of the Republican agenda working in Washington, D.C.