HELENA – The three men running to represent Montana in the U.S. Senate – incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, Republican state auditor Matt Rosendale and Libertarian Rick Breckenridge, faced off in Bozeman Saturday in a televised debate, organized by MTN News and Yellowstone Public Radio. The candidates quickly drew distinctions among themselves on issues from immigration to tax policy.
One of the most contentious issues was health care. Tester attacked Rosendale for his support of short-term insurance plans, which can offer cheaper coverage, but don’t pay for all types of treatments. Tester called the plans “junk insurance.”
“My folks had one of those such plans when I got these fingers cut off in a meat grinder, and they didn’t cover anything,” he said. “I remember my father going, ‘We bought this insurance to have it when we needed it, and when we needed it, it wasn’t there.’ If you buy ‘junk insurance,’ what the commissioner is promoting, you’ll have nothing when you get sick, because it doesn’t cover preexisting conditions, it doesn’t prevent lifetime caps. If you’ve got asthma, high blood pressure, whatever it might be, they won’t cover it. But they’re cheap.”
But Rosendale said short-term plans are only one option he wants to be available to consumers. He said Tester and Democrats in Congress want too much regulation on health coverage, and not enough choices for people to reduce their costs.
“This is what happens when you spend too much time in the federal government: He’s been there for 12 years and he thinks he can determine what is best for you and what is best for your family,” Rosendale said. “I don’t think so. I think it is up to us to make sure that you have as many opportunities to accommodate your health care needs in a way that understands your budget, your specific health care needs, and your personal choices.”
Breckenridge also took on Tester directly on a number of issues, from health care for veterans to border security. He criticized Tester for the growth in federal spending since he was first elected in 2006.
“Jon, when he ran 12 years ago, said it’s time to make Washington look a little bit more like Montana,” he said. “But what’s happened now, like especially with this answer, he kind of likes what’s happening in Washington. I think Jon’s starting to look more like Washington than he does Montana.”
On the Second Amendment, Rosendale said Tester can’t be trusted to protect Montanans’ gun rights, because he supported President Barack Obama’s nominees to the Supreme Court, but opposed President Donald Trump’s.
“He lets somebody else do his bidding,” Rosendale said. “He can say that he’s going to stand for the Second Amendment, but when he confirms a Supreme Court justice that says that they’re willing to take your Second Amendment rights away, it is not acceptable to me.”
But Tester said he’s willing to stand on his record in Congress when it comes to gun rights.
“I’ve done things to allow guns in parks, to allow guns on trains, to expand our Second Amendment rights,” He said. “I feel strongly in it, and nobody’s going to take our guns away on my watch. On the other side of the coin, if you are a criminal, you need to have a background check, because you’ve forfeited that right.”
Dr. David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University and an MTN political analyst, said the debate was strong and substantive.
“I thought Jon Tester looked good,” he said. “I thought Matt Rosendale looked good, and that’s really important. The challenger’s expectations are always lower. You could imagine Matt Rosendale filling the role of the U.S. Senate. And I’ll tell you, the third-party candidate, the Libertarian, Rick Breckenridge, also looked really good.”
This was the final scheduled debate among the three Senate candidates, with just over three weeks left until Election Day. Election officials began mailing absentee ballots to voters around Montana on Friday. Almost 400,000 ballots were sent by the end of the day.