BOZEMAN — Democrat John Lewis and Republican Ryan Zinke debated topics from health care to U.S. intervention in Iraq in a meeting Saturday that turned edgy as each candidate looks to set himself apart with absentee voting about to begin in the U.S. House race.
Lewis, a longtime aide to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, and Zinke, a former state senator and Navy SEAL, are vying for Montana’s open congressional seat. The third candidate, Libertarian Mike Fellows, was not invited to the televised debate.
All three are campaigning in the Nov. 4 election for the open House seat that U.S. Rep. Steve Daines is leaving to run for Senate. Absentee voting begins Monday.
Zinke stuck to the broad themes that he has stressed throughout the campaign, such as strengthening the economy, which he said will solve a host of the nation’s problems. Lewis, in turn, said he had laid out concrete ideas for agriculture, energy and public lands. He criticized Zinke for running more on platitudes than on plans.
“If you want a show horse in this race, then Mr. Zinke is your guy,” Lewis said. “If you want a workhorse, then I’m your guy.”
The debate covered a wide range of topics, but it kept returning to the topic of health care and the Affordable Care Act, a law that was sponsored by Baucus and is unpopular in Montana.
Zinke backtracked somewhat on his campaign’s assertion that Lewis helped write the law, which Lewis has denied. He said he doesn’t think Lewis “wrote it all,” but it would have been Lewis’ job as Baucus’ state director to ensure his values were there.
Zinke acknowledged there were some good aspects to the health-care law, such as people with pre-existing conditions not being denied coverage. But Zinke said the regulatory burdens are too high and threaten businesses.
Lewis dismissed Zinke’s descriptions as scare tactics. The law has helped tens of thousands of Montanans, and insuring workers will help business in the long run, Lewis said.
Improvements can be made to build on the law, he said, but it shouldn’t be scrapped without another plan.
Zinke peppered his answers throughout the debate with one-liners referencing his military past and patriotism.
For example, in answering questions about how he would replace the Affordable Care Act, he said, “When a naval officer abandons a ship, he doesn’t just jump into the ocean, he goes to a safer, smaller vessel.”
He concluded his answer to another health-care question by saying, “I don’t view life through a red lens or a blue lens. I view life through a red, white and blue lens.”
Lewis laughed at his opponent after that last response. “There were no solutions there about health care. I didn’t hear one idea,” he said.
Lewis also was critical of Zinke’s support of the budget plan by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, accusing Zinke of wanting to replace Medicare with a voucher system.
Zinke said he supported the “framework” of the Ryan budget because it would balance the budget in 10 years, but he did not support some aspects, such as the Medicare plan.
Lewis responded that if Zinke started taking out parts of the Ryan budget, it wouldn’t be able to accomplish its goal of a balanced budget.
Both candidates said they supported changing Social Security, but not by raising the minimum age. Lewis said he supported raising the payroll tax cap so that income above $117,000 is taxed by Social Security.
Zinke said Social Security should be for the benefit of only those who have earned it over time, but he did not specifically say who he would exclude from benefits.
Lewis declined to say whether he would advocate sending troops to Iraq to fight the Islamic State, saying it was a matter for thoughtful and deliberate debate. Congress should authorize any use of force, he said.
Zinke, by contrast, said the U.S. should send special forces and support troops to the region and shut down the border with Mexico to prevent terrorists from reaching the U.S.
He repeated his oft-used line that he would rather fight the Islamic State in the deserts than the streets of America, and he tried to link the recent beheading of a woman in Oklahoma to past videos broadcast of beheadings in the Middle East.
“It’s already here,” he said.