Each of the four Republican candidates hoping to unseat Sen. Jon Tester in the general election did his best in Missoula Wednesday night to stand out as the one person who could oust the incumbent.
It was the second time in a week that Russ Fagg, Troy Downing, Matt Rosendale and Al Olszewski gathered before a crowd for a wide-ranging debate. They agreed on many of the issues: unwavering support for gun rights, less government interference in Montana, and their opposition to the recently passed 2,232-page omnibus bill and its $1.3 trillion dollar price tag.
But as the candidates answered the questions, differences emerged as to how they’d achieve their shared goals.
When asked about how to better prevent the massive wildfires the state experienced in 2017, all of the candidates discussed clearing the way for the Forest Service to do more logging. But Rosendale, the current state auditor, homed in on making changes to the Endangered Species Act and the Equal Access to Justice Act. He said both had been turned into tools to reduce logging and mining, and also were harming agricultural producers.
“We need to change the Endangered Species Act and Equal Access to Justice Act to free up the Forest Service so they can do the good work they want to, which is harvesting and managing those forests,” Rosendale said.
Downing agreed that the Equal Access to Justice Act, which mandates that the government cover the plaintiff’s cost of litigation if the federal agency loses a lawsuit, needs to be fixed so all litigants have “skin in the game.” Fagg also wants the Endangered Species Act to be “modernized.”
They also agreed that caring for veterans will be a big issue when confronting Tester, who has made supporting them a focus of his time in Washington. Olszewski noted that his experience — both as a military veteran and as a physician who has worked within the Veterans Administration — gives him extra insight about the need to change the culture of the bureaucracy to get vets the care they need.
“We need to refocus the mission of the VA. It needs to be the best provider for service-related injuries,” he said, adding that veterans in rural areas should qualify to use existing health care services already in their communities.
Fagg, a former Yellowstone County district court judge, said veterans need to be given more choices about services, and there needs to be more competition at the facilities. Downing, a veteran in his first race for political office, said he remains closely connected to that community and they can’t rely on career politicians to understand the needs of military personnel. Rosendale called for more accountability and leadership within the administration.
When it comes to managing the massive national debt, all the candidates called for cutting spending. But Olszewski added that everyone may have to make sacrifices.
“All of us will have to give a little,” Olszewski said. “Less welfare, and maybe more taxes.”
The candidates also agreed that they see President Trump as an asset.
“Trump is a president like we have never seen, like he was a candidate like we have never seen,” said Downing, a businessman from Big Sky. “He is making it easier for businesses to succeed … and he cares about the security of this nation.”
Fagg added that while he likes the reduced regulations and tax reform under the Trump administration, he doesn’t support everything that Trump has done, including tariffs that may hurt Montanans.
“I will support most of his agenda, but not if it doesn’t benefit Montanans,” Fagg said.
The standing-room-only crowd of about 70 people at the ERA Lambros Buildling in Missoula applauded after almost every comment, with some whooping support at various answers.
The four Republicans will face off in the June 5 primary, with only one moving on to the general election on Nov. 5 against Tester. When asked by the audience, all four said they will support whoever wins the primary.
“We have some differences, but are similar with what we are fighting for,” Olszewski said. “One team with one mission — to return the state of Montana to two Republican senators, just like we did 100 years ago.”