With just two weeks until Election Day, the three men vying to be Montana’s next congressman squared off at a debate in Kalispell that hit upon a gamut of issues, from the use of natural resources at home to terror and health threats abroad.
Republican Ryan Zinke, Democrat John Lewis and Libertarian Mike Fellows attended the 90-minute debate held at the Flathead Valley Community College and hosted by the Daily Inter Lake.
The debate came as a recent poll reported that 25 percent of Montanans are still undecided in the race to replace Rep. Steve Daines, who is running for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. The poll released earlier this month by Montana State University-Billings showed Zinke with nearly 40 percent and Lewis with almost 33 percent of the vote. Fellows checked in with just 2 percent of the vote.
While Fellows was in the middle of the stage, Zinke and Lewis spent most of their time ignoring the Libertarian candidate and lobbing accusations toward each other. Of the four U.S. House debates, Fellows has only been invited to two.
The first question presented to the candidates was about the threat of ebola, the virus that has sickened and killed thousands in Africa and recently killed a man in Texas. Lewis said the best way to combat the virus is to ensure that America has the best health care system possible and that more research is needed to combat ebola. Zinke called for more drastic measures, including restricting travel and “quarantining” the three African nations where the virus is most prominent.
The next topic was domestic energy, specifically fracking and the impact North Dakota and Eastern Montana’s oil boom is having on the state. Zinke said he supported the increased production of oil, gas and coal within the United States and said that it was the most logical way to wean America off foreign energy. Lewis echoed that support for oil, gas and coal, but added that a larger emphasis needs to be put on alternative energy, specifically the use of biomass. Lewis said that while fracking has been an “incredible development” for the oil industry, he believes that more needs to be done to ensure that it is safe and does not harm the environment.
Next the debate moved from resources below the ground to those above the ground, specifically the state’s struggling timber industry. Lewis said that laws like the Equal Access to Justice Act make it easier for “fringe environmental groups” to halt timber projects and that that needs to change. He also voiced support for Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Zinke, on the other hand, said he opposes Tester’s bill and wants more forest management power in the hands of local officials. Fellows echoed that idea.
“We need to get Washington D.C. out of the equation, because we can do a better job managing our land than some bureaucrat,” Fellows said.
Responding to a question about gun rights and the Second Amendment, both Lewis and Fellows attacked Zinke “for having more in common with (former) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg than the people of Montana,” according to the Libertarian. Lewis said instead of putting restrictions on guns that more needs to be done to address mental health in the United States. He then criticized Zinke for supporting background checks for people buying guns. Zinke shot back, saying that of the three people on stage he was the only one who could tell the difference between a magazine and a clip.
On the issue of national security, specifically the threat from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Lewis said a measured and informed response was needed from Congress, but added that America is also tired of “endless wars” that have preoccupied us for a decade. Zinke disagreed, calling for a strong military response.
“ISIS is going full throttle and we’re in a full retreat,” Zinke said. “Do I want to send my child to Iraq? No. But do we have to? Yes.”
At the conclusion of the debate, all three candidates had three minutes to make what could be one of their final pitches to the state’s voters about why they should be Montana’s next representative in Washington D.C.
Fellows said that both Lewis and Zinke represent the ideals of political parties that only care about themselves and not the rest of the country. Lewis took the opportunity to voice his support for topics that weren’t addressed in the debate, including woman’s health and protection of the North Fork of the Flathead River. He also took one last shot at Zinke.
“You will never see me waffle on the issues,” Lewis said.
Zinke said that he would try and bring accountability back to Washington.
“This race is a choice between big government, smaller government and no government,” Zinke said, motioning to his opponents.