Cooney, Gianforte Stick to Party Lines in Final Debate

Candidates for governor at odds over U.S. Supreme Court nominee, access to health care and public lands

By Associated Press
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte speaks at the Flathead County Lincoln Reagan Brunch at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on April 15, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

HELENA — Disagreements between gubernatorial candidates Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney were front and center Tuesday during the second and final debate of the race.

The candidates stuck to party lines on key issues, with U.S. Rep. Gianforte accusing Lt. Gov. Cooney of mishandling the economy and trying to limit access to guns. Cooney accused Gianforte of threatening Montanans’ access to health care and public lands.

The candidates differed starkly in their views of the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court and the impact her confirmation could have on abortion access in the state.

Gianforte, who is anti-abortion, called President Donald Trump’s judicial appointments “remarkable.”

Cooney said he is concerned about the possibility that Coney Barrett will be the deciding vote in repealing Roe v. Wade, a landmark case that legalized abortion nationally.

“I believe that a woman should have the right to make the most personal health care decisions in her life, and government has no business being involved,” Cooney said, adding that as governor he would veto any bill that would limit abortion access.

Cooney also said he is concerned about the possibility that the confirmation of Coney Barrett, who has spoken against the Affordable Care Act, could threaten Medicaid expansion in the state, stripping health care from thousands of Montana residents.

The Supreme Court is set to hear a case against the ACA days after the November election. Gianforte has said he would support repealing the law.

The two candidates painted different pictures of the state’s economy. Cooney, who has four decades of experience in public service, touted Montana’s unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the nation, and said the state is in “a very strong position” to weather the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, thanks to budgeting decisions that have left the rainy day coffers full.

But Gianforte, a wealthy businessman seeking to be the first Republican governor in 16 years, noted that average wages in Montana are some of the lowest in the nation, and many young people leave the state in search of employment. His solution would include reducing red tape in government, lowering state taxes and investing in trade education, he said.

Cooney said the key to improving the state’s economy is investing in public education. He also said he would oppose giving public money to private schools, unlike Gianforte, who supports allocating tax dollars to private schools in the state’s larger communities.

“One size does not fit all,” Gianforte said.

On energy policy, Cooney said he would support the state moving towards green energy production.

“This is an opportunity for Montana to lead, to lead us into this new clear energy, where Montana will continue to be an energy producer,” Cooney said.

Gianforte said he would support an “all of the above” energy policy, including continued reliance on coal and other non-renewable energy sources.

As COVID-19 cases across the state continue to balloon, with the state reporting a record 504 new cases on Tuesday, the candidates had different visions for the response to the pandemic.

Gianforte, like President Donald Trump who endorses him, hung his hopes on a vaccine, saying that he hoped one will become available before he would assume office in January. Cooney said the state’s response should be grounded in science and making sure Montana residents follow mask requirements, avoid crowds and maintain social distancing.

The debate, hosted by Montana PBS, was recorded live in Missoula.

Ballots will be mailed to Montana voters on Friday, after the majority of the state’s counties chose to hold the Nov. 3 elections by mail.

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