Republican gubernatorial candidates Tim Fox and Greg Gianforte took off the gloves in their only televised pre-primary debate Saturday, with Fox saying Gianforte is trying to “buy this election” and Gianforte calling Fox’s attacks “shameful.”
“Congressman, it’s clear that you were social-distancing long before the pandemic hit,” Fox said in his closing statement. “You’ve ducked debates and forums, refused interviews with the press, avoided open public meetings and tough questions and instead used your considerable wealth to buy this election.”
Gianforte, the state’s U.S. representative, said Fox is “trying to manipulate and make false statements to manipulate voters. … Let me just say that Mr. Fox’s behavior is shameful.”
Fox also accused Gianforte of trying to dissuade Fox’s supporters by telling them that Fox has cancer and might get sick while in the governor’s office.
“That’s appalling and it’s certainly not Montana,” Fox said. “Montanans know better, congressman.”
The exchanges came in a three-way debate among Fox, who is the state’s attorney general, Gianforte, and state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell, who are competing for the GOP nomination to run for governor in 2020.
The three men debated remotely, from their homes, answering questions from a three-journalist panel over the Internet and having the opportunity to rebut each other.
The hour-long debate, aired statewide on MTN stations and other broadcast outlets, was produced by the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.
The Republican debate followed a separate MBA-Greater Montana Foundation debate between the two Democratic candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams.
The winner of the two June 2 primaries will face off against each other this fall for an open seat, and the chance to become Montana’s 25th governor. Libertarian and Green Party candidates also will be on the ballot in November.
Gianforte, 59, Montana’s U.S. House member since 2017, is thought to be the front-runner in the primary, as he has outspent his opponents by at least 4-to-1 and has released internal polls showing him with a sizeable lead. He’s also put $1 million of his own money into his campaign.
At the opening of Saturday’s debate, Gianforte said he’s been running a positive campaign and invoked former President Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” of politics: Don’t speak ill of fellow Republicans.
But Fox, 62, showed early on that he had no plans to take that pledge.
The two-term attorney general said polls show he’s the only Republican who can win this November, noting that Gianforte lost the governor’s race in 2016 when Donald Trump won the state by 20 points, and dissed Gianforte’s business plan for the state as without substance.
He said Gianforte has high negatives with the public, is proposing unrealistic cuts to the state budget and has missed many votes in Congress.
“You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you don’t get to make up your own facts,” Gianforte responded. “The latest polling we’ve seen has me with the highest lead in the general election, in better shape than any other Republican on the same ticket.”
Olszewski mostly avoided the crossfire during the debate, but said he’s the only Republican who would truly follow the state party’s platform, by opposing the Flathead tribal water-rights compact and seeking a way to repeal Medicaid expansion, which covers 90,000 low-income Montanans with government health insurance.
He also said he wants to cut property taxes by “disconnecting” public-education funding from those taxes, and instead using natural-resource taxes and royalties, like Wyoming.
“Once we’ve done that, we can see our property taxes drop by 20 percent to 30 percent,” he said. “That gives a margin to our counties to be able to pay for potholes in their roads, to pay for their water systems.”
Gianforte, as he has throughout the campaign, emphasized his experience of co-founding and growing a software-development business in Bozeman that employed 500 people, and said he’d bring that business experience to the governor’s office to help the economy.
He said his business plan, which hasn’t yet been released, would help agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and high-tech sectors grow.
“It starts with a top-to-bottom regulatory review,” Gianforte said. “It also will focus on slowing the growth of state government … and use any surplus that results to reduce taxes across the board – property taxes, income taxes, business-equipment taxes.”
Fox said he and his running mate, former state Rep. Jon Knokey of Bozeman, have already developed a 15-point plan to boost the economy and posted it on their campaign website.
He said the next governor will be facing a likely deficit in the state budget, and needs to be someone who can work closely with all political sides to solve the problem.
“That’s what I’ve done as attorney general, and that’s what I will do as governor,” Fox said. “I’m a unifier; I bring people together. And we need that in a post-covid circumstance.”