HELENA – Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and his Democratic opponent, Gov. Steve Bullock, clashed over the response to the pandemic and the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy in the last debate of Montana’s U.S. Senate race.
Bullock accused Daines of stalling on a second federal coronavirus relief package. Bullock said he would not implement stricter measures to limit the spread of the virus, despite a high infection rate in the state, because there was no federal safety net for workers and businesses.
The freshman senator rejected Bullock’s view that Americans must learn to live with the virus, instead hanging the solution to the rampant spread of the virus on therapeutic drugs and vaccinations, which he promised would be distributed free of charge once approved.
The governor was praised for his swift response in the spring, which included a shutdown order that helped keep the virus at bay. But as the state reopened in early summer, the case tally began to climb. A record number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths were reported in recent days, as the governor delegated responsibility for precautions to local authorities.
Bullock rejected the confirmation process of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying it could put parts of the Affordable Care Act in jeopardy. Daines has expressed support for a court case seeking repeal the health law, which is set to be heard by the court days after the Nov. 3 election.
Bullock said that if Coney Barrett was confirmed, he would be open to measures to depoliticize the court, including adding judges to the bench, a practice critics have dubbed packing the courts.
“We need to figure out the ways to actually get the politics out of the court,” Bullock said. “That’s anything from a judicial standards commission, or we’ll look at any other thing that might be suggested, including adding justices.”
Daines, who supports the confirmation of Coney Barrett, said packing the courts would threaten the Second Amendment, which gives people the right to carry guns.
Bullock said he would protect gun access, but that he is open to conversations on new safety measures, including universal background checks.
The debate was recorded remotely and aired Saturday evening on the Montana Television Network, a day after many counties in the state mailed ballots to voters.
Despite a lawsuit filed by the Montana Republican Party to stop all-mail voting from taking place in Montana, Daines said he supports all-mail voting. The option to hold the election by mail was permitted under Bullock’s order, which Republicans challenged unsuccessfully.
A key race that Democrats hope to win in their bid to gain control of the Senate, the Montana contest has drawn in millions in outside spending, becoming one of the most expensive ones on record in the state.
Throughout the debate, the candidates accused one another of acting on the whims of their party leaders.
“Montanans want a leader, not a lap dog,” Bullock said, accusing Daines of staying mum when Republicans threatened mail-in voting in the state.
Daines, for his part, said Bullock would follow the lead of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He said that if Bullock is elected to the Senate, it could lead to “liberal tyranny.”
Bullock, 54, is barred by term limits from seeking a third term in the governor’s mansion. He entered the Senate race in March, following a presidential bid that failed to gain traction.
President Donald Trump won Montana by 20 points in 2016. But Bullock’s entry into the race has put the Senate seat in play for Democrats, who must win at least three other seats in November to gain control of the Senate.
Daines, 58, has Trump’s endorsement and has praised the president for his handling of the pandemic. The former businessman was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, following two years as Montana’s lone representative in the U.S. House.
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