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WHITEFISH — Sunday was supposed to be the opening skirmish in “the battle of the flat-tops” — a Montana Broadcasters Association-sponsored debate between U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Matt Rosendale, Montana’s state auditor and insurance commissioner who won the June 5 primary vote to become the Republican nominee for Senate.

Last week, however, Rosendale declined to participate, citing Father’s Day plans. As previously reported, the Broadcasters Association had notified the candidates two months ago about a June 17 debate, and Rosendale had indicated he would take part. However, there was no contract committing Rosendale to a debate, according to Dewey Bruce, Montana Broadcasting CEO and president. 

Rather than taking on his opponent, Montana’s senior senator spent about 40 minutes answering questions from Ron Davis, an association board member and chairman of its debate committee, and from reporters gathered at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake. For most of the event, both Tester and his questioners avoided side-by-side comparisons with Rosendale. Instead, they focused on the policies likely to be at issue in the months ahead.

Montana Broadcasters Association - Tester

Ron Davis (left), chairman of the Montana Broadcasters Association debate forum, questions U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., at a forum Sunday in Whitefish. Tester's Republican opponent, state Auditor Matt Rosendale, cited Father's Day obligations in declining to attend.

“Here you are running for your third term, with another, it looks like, heated race, thanks to outside monies,” Davis said at the outset. “What's your take on that?”

Money’s influence in elections was a major concern of his, Tester replied.

“We're seeing just floods of dollars come in,” he said. According to the Federal Election Commission, since last year Tester has reported more than $10 million in contributions for this election cycle. Rosendale has reported more than $1.2 million.

“We are on the landscape we're on,” Tester said of pricey campaigns. “It is the field that we're playing, and we will play on that field, until I can vote to have campaign finance reform.”

The conversation repeatedly focused on immigration and border security, already emerging as key issues in this race. Tester has cast himself as a backer of strong borders, even inviting Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, as his guest to this year’s State of the Union address.

Rosendale has released an ad saying that Tester declined a chance to stop “sanctuary cities” — localities that decline to cooperate with various aspects of immigration enforcement — and pledging to “get tough and build that wall.”

“I’m opposed to sanctuary cities,” Tester said, describing the importance of having law enforcement from all agencies working together. But in his view, congressional Republicans’ main line of attack against these places — bills that would restrict their federal funding — are a “mistake” that would hurt public safety.

As for the border wall that his opponent vows to help build, Tester voiced deep concerns about its cost and effectiveness. Ports of Entry, he argued, need to be better secured to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country. “My goal is to make sure we have the technology and the manpower to be able to check those cars and those trucks out coming in,” he said.

Tester also condemned the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute all illegal border-crossers, a practice that has seen about 2,000 children separated from their parents and taken into custody. “A deterrent where you rip kids away from their parents is not acceptable,” he said, “and I can tell you that we've got to figure out a better way than this. This is not something we should be doing as a nation.”

Sunday afternoon, Tester called such separations "sick and heartless" in a Facebook post announcing that he's co-sponsoring the Keep Families Together Act that in most cases prohibits officers and agents from removing children from parents or guardians at Ports of Entry, or within 100 miles of the U.S. border. 

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When the discussion turned to health care, Tester proposed a change that could have bipartisan appeal. “We need to put more transparency on prescription drugs, we need to put more transparency into the health insurance business, into the medical business generally,” he said. Rosendale has also called for greater transparency in the pharmaceutical and health care industries.

But unlike his opponent, Tester isn’t ready to demolish the Affordable Care Act. He acknowledged Montanans’ ongoing struggles with high prices, but “to just say, ‘We're gonna repeal and take insurance away and add more instability to the system’ is not the direction to go.”

Instead he favors “allowing Medicaid expansion to work,” and finding ways to increase market competition by encouraging more companies to participate in the bill’s insurance pools, possibly by allowing insurance to be purchased across state lines.

Tester’s moves on health care for a specific group — the nation’s veterans — thrust him into the national spotlight earlier this year, when he investigated allegations of serious misconduct by Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, President Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, prompting Jackson to withdraw his name from consideration.

That move drew President Trump’s wrath, but Tester stood by his actions. “Every one of the questions that we asked him would’ve been asked in the [Senate Veterans Affairs] Committee and he would’ve been under oath. I believe we saved him some problems.”

“I did my job, the president didn't like the job I did, but the Constitution was clear, and [I] will continue to do my job,” Tester said.

Coming months promise more discussion of these and the other issues — including energy, health care, gun control and foreign policy — discussed Sunday morning. And despite his no-show this time, Rosendale insists he’s eager to face off with the senator, challenging Tester in a tweet to five debates before the general election.

Asked after the event whether or not he would commit to those five debates, Tester replied, “There's a lot of conversation that has to be done about where, who, making sure that they're real, making sure that the people of the state of Montana can hear them. … There will be negotiations moving forward, but my concern is [that] he commits, and then he doesn't [show up]. That's a problem.”

But whatever happens, the senator predicted that “the differences between us are going to be absolutely obvious to the voters by the time they hit the polls in November.”

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