BIG SKY — Stark disagreement over the Citizens United campaign finance ruling highlighted Montana’s first U.S. Senate debate Saturday, as Republican challenger Denny Rehberg defended the Supreme Court decision as vital to free speech.
Incumbent Democrat Jon Tester responded that the widely criticized ruling puts democracy at risk by giving corporations more power than people.
The debate was the first time the two candidates have faced off more than a year after the campaign got underway. Control of the Senate is potentially at stake in one of the nation’s most-watched races.
The two candidates offered starkly divergent views on issues ranging from health care to student loans to regulation of the financial industry.
Rehberg persistently hammered his opponent as a front-man for the Obama administration, while Tester touted legislation he supported to help seniors, veterans and the uninsured.
But the divide over Citizens United stood out. The Supreme Court ruling opened the door to campaign contributions from corporations and special interest groups and has been derided by many Montana politicians.
Rehberg said he supported the ruling, although he added that there should be full transparency on where campaign money is coming from.
“There should be nothing more free that political free speech,” he said.
Tester responded that “corporations are not people.”
First-term incumbent Tester, a self-described “dirt farmer” from Big Sandy, narrowly won six years ago. He’s since tried to solidify support by appealing to a broad range of voters including veterans, seniors and women.
But Rehberg is a formidable opponent who already enjoys statewide name recognition after six terms as Montana’s sole member of the House.
The campaign is destined to become the most expensive in Montana history.
On top of special interest money pouring in, the two candidates combined have raised almost $12 million and spent more than $5.6 million, according to the latest finance reports from their campaigns. Analysts say total spending could easily top $20 million.
Also participating in the debate, hosted by the Montana Newspaper Association, was Libertarian candidate Dan Cox of Hamilton.
He said the two major parties bear equal responsibility for the nation’s economic ills and that if elected he would “cut cut cut” to rein in spending.
“If we don’t get our deficit under control, if we don’t stop printing money, we’re going to go bankrupt,” Cox said.
The otherwise civil debate took a personal turn in the closing minutes as Tester questioned Rehberg’s credentials as a rancher. Rehberg and his wife family have made tens of millions of dollars subdividing and selling pieces of their Billings ranch for housing developments.
“Farming and agriculture is part of my blood,” said Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy. “Building houses is not ranching.”
Rehberg said after the debate that he was leasing his ranch but still plays a role in the operation. He added that his wife, Jan, owns the family real estate business and said Tester “just attacked all women who run their own businesses.”
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