HELENA – Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke has changed his mind and will participate in a debate against Democratic opponent John Lewis in Billings on Monday night, his campaign said.
It will be the second meeting between the two candidates vying to replace U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who is leaving his seat to run for the Senate. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and state senator, and Lewis, a longtime aide to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, debated in Butte in June.
Zinke previously declined to participate in the Billings debate hosted by The Billings Gazette and Yellowstone Public Radio, citing a scheduling conflict. The sponsors of the debate decided to change the format instead of canceling, turning it into a forum with Lewis.
Zinke’s campaign released a statement after 5 p.m. on Friday that he will participate.
“I made this debate a high priority, made the necessary schedule changes to allow me to attend, and I appreciate the willingness of the Gazette to welcome us to the debate,” Zinke said in the statement.
Campaign spokeswoman Shelby DeMars did not return a call for comment. She sent a brief statement in an email that said the campaign began looking into rescheduling Zinke’s schedule “a couple of weeks ago,” but not when the decision was made.
“We have been working to see if it was even possible to rearrange meetings and travel plans so that we could make it, but we weren’t going to confirm until we knew for 100% certain that we could make it to the debate,” her statement said.
Lewis’ campaign received no prior warning of the change, but he is ready to face Zinke, campaign spokeswoman Kathy Weber said.
“He had hoped from the beginning that Zinke would do the right thing and show up, and it’s unfortunate that it took (Zinke) this long to decide a debate in Billings is worth his time,” Weber said. “It’s a testament to Mr. Zinke’s character that it took weeks of public shaming to attend a debate that he should have wanted to attend in the first place.”
The debate will be held at 7 p.m. at the Montana State University-Billings Petro Theater.
A third debate is scheduled for Oct. 4 in Bozeman.