HELENA – Three Democratic candidates made the case Saturday in the only scheduled debate before next month’s primary election that each of them is the man to beat U.S. Rep. Steve Daines and keep Montana’s U.S. Senate seat out of Republican hands.
Sen. John Walsh and rancher Dirk Adams took shots at each other in parsing their views on corporate money in politics and on the environment, while John Bohlinger reminded the audience of the party’s ultimate goal.
“The question that should unite us today is how do we beat Congressman Daines, the most extreme right-wing person who was ever voted to Congress from Montana?” Bohlinger said.
Daines’ name was invoked at least at 16 times during the 1 ½-hour debate at Benefis Health Systems’ Cameron Auditorium in Great Falls. When Adams wasn’t knocking Daines, he was comparing Walsh to the freshman Republican.
“You’ve got to understand, the same people who give money to Steve Daines give money to John Walsh – and he takes it,” Adams said.
Walsh raised about $946,000 in the last quarter, when Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him to replace Max Baucus, who resigned from the Senate in February to become ambassador to China.
Walsh responded by saying he disagreed with Adams. Walsh did not elaborate, saying his campaign finance records speak for themselves.
Walsh said he opposed the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen United decision allowing corporate election spending, while Adams and Daines supported it.
Adams denied that characterization, pointing out that he is not accepting donations from political-action committees or lobbyists.
Bohlinger and Walsh both said they support overturning the Citizens United decision through legislation or a constitutional amendment. Adams said it would be difficult to pass a constitutional amendment and encouraged voters to take their own action.
“There’s something you can do right now: Don’t vote for people who take big money,” Adams said.
Part of the debate centered on what it means to be a Democrat in Montana. One question from the audience asked the candidates whether they can be environmentalists and still support the development of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.
Adams said flatly that he doesn’t support building the pipeline. Walsh and Bohlinger said the pipeline is a safer transportation method than rail or truck.
“We want to move away from fossil fuel consumption, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” Walsh said. “Right now, the safest way to do that is through the Keystone XL pipeline.”
Adams also warned of what he called an overlooked disaster waiting to happen, the rising Berkelely Pit in Butte, which holds 30 billion gallons of toxic, metal-laden water left over from mining.
The pit’s contents are 10 years from reaching Butte’s groundwater, he said. Walsh, who is from Butte, should be doing more to bring attention to the issue, Adams said.
The question of what it means to be a Democrat is a particularly interesting one for Bohlinger, who was a Republican legislator and remained with the GOP as lieutenant governor under Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Bohlinger said he considered changing parties when he was still in the Legislature in the 1990s, but he didn’t because he thought he could be a bridge between the parties.
But then he found himself inevitably drawn to the Democratic Party, which he called the party of inclusion and social liberties.
Adams and Bohlinger both said the nation’s health-care law did not go far enough and should include a single-payer system. Walsh said “the jury was still out” on the law, and he wants to find ways to bring the costs down.
The candidates also talked about whether so-called “stand-your ground laws” should be changed in the wake of a 17-year-old German exchange student’s death in Missoula.
Homeowner Markus Kaarma has been charged with deliberate homicide after shooting at an intruder who tripped sensors in his open garage last weekend, hitting Diren Dede. Kaarma’s attorney said he plans to plead not guilty under Montana’s self-defense laws.
Walsh said he believes the state’s law should stand because a citizen should have the ability to protect himself and his family.
Bohlinger said he supported changing the law, while Adams suggested going further.
“It wasn’t a stand-your-ground situation,” Adams said of the Missoula shooting. “It was nothing more than targeting and hunting. Obviously, the person who did that needs to be put through the wood-chipper.”
Daines faces state Rep. Champ Edmunds and political newcomer Susan Cundiff in the Republican primary.
The primary election is June 3.
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