HELENA – Montana gubernatorial candidates Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney focused on their approaches to the economy and their responses to the coronavirus pandemic in their first debate Saturday evening.
Gianforte, who is endorsed by President Donald Trump and is known for body-slamming a reporter in 2017, is trying to become Montana’s first Republican governor in 16 years.
One of the wealthiest members of Congress, Gianforte touted his business experience, which includes founding a start-up technology company in his hometown of Bozeman that was eventually sold for almost $2 billion.
He faces current Lt. Gov. Cooney, who is vying for the seat after a long career in public service in the state, including stints as secretary of state and president of the state Senate.
The candidates disagreed on their approach to limiting the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Gianforte said that if elected, he would rely on personal responsibility to limit the spread of the virus, rather than health mandates.
Despite a statewide mask mandate that has been in place since July, the state has seen a rising number of COVID-19 cases, reporting more than 500 new cases in a single day for the first time Saturday. The mandate has drawn ire from many Montanans, sparking protests across the state.
Cooney said the state’s response to the pandemic should rely on “science and the best medical practices.”
The candidates also disagreed on the state of Montana’s economy. Cooney highlighted the state’s unemployment rate, which is one of the lowest in the nation. Gianforte noted that Montana ranked one of the lowest in the nation in terms of wages prior to the pandemic, and he said that he would rely on his business experience to help create higher-paying jobs.
Both candidates said they would not support a sales tax. Gianforte said he would cut the state’s property and income taxes, while Cooney said that he would support raising taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents.
Cooney said it’s not fair to expect low-wage earners to pay the same tax rate as those making over half a million dollars a year.
Part of Gianforte’s economic plan includes support for resource extraction and reducing government red tape. During Saturday’s debate, Gianforte called the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation “the project prevention departments.”
Cooney said he would focus on clean energy alongside oil, gas, and coal.
“We need to take advantage of the great clean energy capacity that we have,” he said. “That’s where the market is heading.”
Contrasting against his business experience, Gianforte called Cooney an “out-of-touch career politician.” Cooney said his four decades of public service in Montana give him the experience to lead the state, touting his work in expanding Medicaid coverage.
Gianforte said he would protect Medicaid expansion in the state. But he also said he would support repealing the Affordable Care Act, which he said has made health care unaffordable in the state.
It’s the second attempt at the governor’s mansion for both candidates. Cooney, 66, ran unsuccessfully for the governor’s office in 2000. Gianforte, 59, ran for the office in 2016 and lost to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who has served the maximum two terms and is running for a U.S. Senate seat.
The governor’s race has so far been one of the most expensive on record for the state, with Gianforte pouring millions from his personal wealth into his campaign, and Cooney drawing in millions in outside spending.
The debate was recorded remotely Saturday morning via an online platform as the debate host, the Montana Television Network, took coronavirus precautions. A second debate will take place Tuesday.
Ballots will be mailed to most Montana registered voters in the state next week, after the majority of the state’s counties decided to hold the Nov. 3 election by mail.
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