Republican candidates vying for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat sparred Wednesday night over their stances on spending, health care, abortion, gun rights, climate change and immigration in the final debate before the June 3 primary elections.
All five GOP candidates were on hand, converging before 350 audience members at the Red Lion in Kalispell.
The Republican nominee will face the winner of the Democratic primary race between former Sen. Max Baucus aide John Lewis and former state Rep. John Driscoll in November’s general election.
The debate was hosted by the Glacier Country Forum and the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. It featured former state Sen. Ryan Zinke, of Whitefish, state Sen. Elsie Arntzen, of Billings, state Sen. Matt Rosendale, of Glendive, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, of Billings, and Drew Turiano, of Helena.
Although most candidates agreed on bedrock conservative principles, ranging from health care to spending and climate change, they differed on how to achieve the goals they believe would put the country on the mend and back on track.
The exception was Turiano, who unabashedly grandstanded about his controversial views on immigration, often dropping soundbites that amused audience members, but failing to use more than a fraction of his allotted time.
“The most important issue facing America and conservatism is immigration,” he said, arguing that immigrants voting in elections favor Democrats who advocate government-funded social programs. “If we don’t place a moratorium on immigration, conservatives are looking at an extinction level event. It will be the conservative singularity.”
Still, the tone of the mostly genial debate only turned acrimonious when the candidates were given the opportunity to ask questions of one another, with all candidates taking the opportunity to fire pot shots at Zinke’s voting record, which they said was neither conservative enough nor consistent.
Zinke, who has raised more money than any of the other candidates in contention for the Republican nomination, absorbed the lion’s share of attacks from his opponents.
“I see someone’s read the polls,” Zinke said, following a succession of attacks directed at him.
Stapleton used his opportunity to accuse Zinke of having “had the most liberal voting record” of any other candidate, and accused the former senator of “flip-flopping” on issues like unions, guns and abortion.
“I think we need to elect a congressman that has the consistent conservative principles that we never compromise on,” Stapleton said, adding that Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, received a scant 42 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.
Zinke responded with conviction, asserting that he is pro-gun, anti-abortion and pro-business, but he won’t vote for legislation in lockstep if it’s not good for Montana.
“I don’t work for the NRA,” he said. “I’m a member. I appreciate and respect the NRA, but I don’t work for them.”
Responding to an issue on immigration reform, Stapleton said he supported legal immigration, but that the nation should enforce laws and maintain border enforcement.
“We don’t want to give legal immigration a black eye. We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws and we need to follow those laws,” Stapleton said.
His response drew the ire of Turiano, whose views on immigration he has made the centerpiece of his campaign, which does not align with the Republican establishment and has even led to him being ostracized from previous debates.
“I’m against all illegal immigration but I’m also against all legal immigration,” he said. “It will be the end of the Republican Party in 10 years or less. Most immigrants want free education, free health care, and the Republican Party will go the way of the Whigs unless we get rid of all immigration. It will be the end of conservatism.”
Stapleton fired back, saying he is “not running for Congress to protect the Republican Party.”
“I’m running because I’m an American and I believe it is the right thing to do. Legal immigration is a good thing. We should not be afraid of change. We should not be afraid of cross-pollination. Conservative ideology is not based on the color of your skin so we need to embrace legal immigration,” he said.
When asked about climate change, four of the five candidates, all of whom encouraged natural resource extraction and energy independence, said they did not believe it was human-caused.
Zinke, who has campaigned on the notion that energy independence is critical in order to emerge from debt within 10 years, was more reluctant to shoot down the claim that global warming is human-caused.
“The truth of the matter is I don’t know. I don’t think anyone in this room knows,” Zinke said. “What I do know is that you don’t disassemble American power and industry on a maybe. It is a war of fossil fuels against pixie dust and hope, and I choose fossil fuels.”
Arntzen said climate change is a power grab by Democrats to interfere with states’ rights and shift more control to the federal government.
“I don’t believe that we as humans have had much to do with this at all. We have all lived through cold winters and hot summers. What this is, is a fear factor,” she said. “This is fear that the government has to come in here and help. We don’t need government to come in here and give us a program to save us from global warming.”
The candidates all agreed that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was a disaster, and three candidates called for outright repeal of the massive health care overhaul.
The candidates united in their belief that health care is not a constitutional right, with Turiano arguing that it is the final step toward a single-payer system, and Rosendale and Zinke offering more measured solutions.
“I don’t believe it’s a right, I believe it’s a responsibility of a great nation to make sure that access to health care is there,” Zinke said.
There is no right to health care in the Constitution, Rosendale said, but if people decide to purchase health care, they should have the freedom to choose what they want. Stapleton and Zinke said providing health care should not be free, but it is a nation’s responsibility.
All five candidates said there should be no additional Wilderness or Wild and Scenic designations, with Rosendale and Turiano calling for the return of all federal lands to state control.
About 35 percent of Montana land is controlled by the U.S. government, and Arntzen said she would support returning federal land to state control, but only if it did not require growing state government.
Zinke said reforms are needed to access and develop the natural resources on those lands more quickly, and Stapleton said low taxes would boost resource development.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.